Barack Obama arrives in Cuba for historic trip

Sunday 20 March 2016 22.36
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US President Barack Obama waves as he gets in his limousine upon arrival at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba
US President Barack Obama waves as he gets in his limousine upon arrival at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba
A taxi with a US flag is seen on the streets of Havana, Cuba
A taxi with a US flag is seen on the streets of Havana, Cuba

US President Barack Obama arrived in Cuba today on a historic visit, opening a new chapter in US engagement with the island's Communist government after decades of animosity between the former Cold War foes.

Obama landed at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport aboard Air Force One, the presidential jet this evening.

The three-day trip, the first by a US president to Cuba in 88 years, is the culmination of a diplomatic opening announced by Mr Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014, ending a Cold War-era estrangement that began when the Cuban revolution ousted a pro-American government in 1959.

Mr Obama, who abandoned a long-time US policy of trying to isolate Cuba, wants to make his shift irreversible. But major obstacles remain to full normalisation of ties, and Mr Obama's critics at home say the visit is premature.

Travelling with first lady Michelle Obama, her mother and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, the president will mostly play tourist on his first night on the Caribbean island, taking in the famous sights of Old Havana.

He will hold talks with Raul Castro - but not his brother Fidel, the revolutionary leader - and speak to entrepreneurs tomorrow. He will meet privately with dissidents, address Cubans live on state-run media and attend an exhibition baseball game on Tuesday.

The trip carries both symbolism and substance after decades of hostility between Washington and Havana.

It makes Mr Obama the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship in 1928.

It is also another major step in chipping away at remaining barriers to US-Cuba trade and travel and developing more normal relations between Washington and Havana.

Since rapprochement, the two sides have restored diplomatic ties and signed commercial deals on telecommunications and scheduled an airline service.

Major differences remain, notably the 54-year-old economic embargo of Cuba. Mr Obama has asked Congress to rescind it, but the move has been blocked by the Republican leadership.

Underscoring the ideological divide that persists between Washington and Havana, Cuban police, backed by hundreds of pro-government demonstrators, broke up the regular march of a leading dissident group, the Ladies in White, detaining about 50 people just hours before Mr Obama was due to arrive.