Obama in Havana to cement thaw in USA-Cuba relations

US President Barack Obama talks to tourists and Cubans at his arrival to the Havana Cathedral, on March 20, 2016.  On Sunday, Obama became the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba, touching down in Havana for a landmark trip aimed at ending decades of Cold War animosity.   AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE / AFP / YAMIL LAGE

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President Barack Obama arrived in Havana for a visit that he hopes will help end a hostile US policy toward Cuba that he views as futile, lifting one of the biggest impediments to closer US alliances across Latin America.
Air Force One touched down at Jose Marti International Airport at about 4:19 pm. Obama took an evening walking tour of Old Havana ahead of a formal arrival ceremony. He told staff at the US embassy, re-opened in 2015, that the visit was a chance to engage the Cuban people.
“Having a US embassy means we’re more effectively able to advance our values,our interests, and understand more effectively” the Cuban people’s concerns, Obama said. “This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity.”
Obama led a US delegation that includes lawmakers from both parties, corporate executives eyeing new business with and within Cuba, and prominent Cuban Americans. Over two days, he’ll sip Cuban coffee and will talk with dissidents and entrepreneurs. Offering a taste to Cubans of what a more open relationship could mean, Obama also plans to attend an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

‘A New Era’
Even with little chance that Congress will lift the US trade embargo on Cuba before he leaves office in January, Obama is betting that a rapprochement, symbolized by his visit, has now become irrevocable, no matter who succeeds him.
“It signals the beginning of a new era, more than anything that’s been done so far,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who’s among the leading US advocates of normalization. “Any Republican administration would be hard-pressed to reverse really any of this. This all feeds on itself. These changes are going to be permanent and expanding.”

Republican Opposition
The president’s visit is the latest step in an effort announced in December 2014 to restore relations with the Communist-run island after a half century. Though embraced by many Americans, the prospect of reconciliation with the government of Raul Castro has drawn sharp criticism from some Republicans, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
Fidel Castro
Obama will meet with Raul Castro but not with Fidel Castro, the 89-year-old architect of Cuba’s revolution. He’ll deliver a speech to the Cuban people and urge the nation’s government to improve its human rights policies as well as its business climate if it wants real U.S. investment.
The Associated Press reported that counter-protesters and police on Sunday broke up an anti-government demonstration by the Ladies in White dissident group in Havana, hours before Obama was due to land.
Offering a taste of what a more open relationship could mean, Obama also plans to attend an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. He’ll miss by a couple of days another historic spectacle, a free Rolling Stones concert in Havana. Those images are not just for consumption back in the US or in Cuba. The highlights of the trip will be beamed across Latin America.

Latin American Friction
Obama is making the connection between his Cuba policy and his aspirations for improved relations with the rest of Latin America explicit by flying from Cuba to Argentina. While the friction between the U.S. and Latin America has multiple sources, the isolation of Cuba is a common factor.
“The Latin Americans are really amazed by our enduring enmity to Castro,” said Jonathan Hansen, a Harvard University historian and specialist on Guantanamo, who is writing a biography about Fidel Castro. “Having a reciprocal, respectful recognition of Cuba as a country that’s struggling on its own terms, to treat them like they have a right to exist, is really important for Latin America.”

Easing Relations
Obama already has moved to restore the relationship, reopening the US embassy, opening the way to commercial airline flights to Cuba, resuming direct US mail delivery, and undercutting the embargo through a series of regulatory changes his administration has deemed legal to ease restrictions on remittances, travel, exports, banking and businesses. By becoming the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in Cuba in 88 years, Obama looks to unwind that legacy and build a new one.
Partisan Fault Lines
Obama’s track record on shifting US foreign policy is mixed. He has yet to deliver on a 2009 speech in Cairo signaling a new framework for U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Obama’s attempt to put Asia at the center of US foreign policy remains a work in progress more than seven years into his presidency.
Obama’s Cuba outreach has also exposed clear lines in US politics, particularly in the presidential campaign. While former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, the two candidates for the Democratic nomination, have embraced improving relations with Cuba, the Republican candidates have generally opposed Obama’s actions.
Trump, the businessman who’s the front-runner in the Republican race, more recently said he would close the U.S. embassy in Havana and instead negotiate more concessions from the Castro regime. Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas whose father came to the U.S. from Cuba, has called Obama’s approach “unconditional surrender.” And John Kasich, governor of Ohio and another Republican presidential candidate, has said he wouldn’t allow greater commercial ties without changes by the Cuban government.

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