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President Obama Touches Down In Cuba, Commencing A Historic Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrive at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrive at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba.

One of the last vestiges of the Cold War was buried Sunday, when President Obama set foot in Cuba. He's the first American president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge, 88 years ago.

"Que bola', Cuba?" Obama tweeted in an informal greeting, moments after Air Force One touched down at Havana's Jose Marti Airport. "Looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people."

Holding an umbrella against a light rain, Obama and the first family were greeted by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. The motorcade then made its way to a meeting with staff of the U.S. embassy, which re-opened last summer after a half-century of official isolation.

Obama and his wife and daughters planned to visit the Havana Cathedral on Sunday evening and meet with Cardinal Ortega — recognition of the prominent role he and Pope Francis played in encouraging the Administration's surprise thaw with Cuba that was announced in December 2014.

The president was to be joined in Cuba by more three dozen members of Congress, including several who accompanied the first family on Air Force One. Several U.S. business leaders will also take part in the visit, including an executive from Starwood hotels, which just inked an agreement to manage three Cuban properties.

The history-making trip is designed to cement the Administration's diplomatic outreach to Cuba, making it hard for any future president to return to the half-century old policy of isolation that Obama and his team consider a failure.

Only Congress can lift the trade embargo against Cuba. But over the past 15 months, the Administration has been chipping away at it, easing restrictions on both travel and commerce.

The number of Americans traveling to Cuba jumped nearly 80 percent last year. That's expected to increase as airlines resume scheduled service later this year, with up to 110 flights a day.

Thus far, the U.S. overtures have been met with little reciprocal movement by the Cuban government. Obama is expected to press Cuban President Raul Castro to do more open both Cuba's economy and the political system when the two leaders meet on Monday.

The White House says Obama will also raise the issue of Cuba's human rights abuses and he plans to meet separately with anti-government activists on Tuesday. A weekly demonstration by the Ladies in White group was quickly silenced Sunday afternoon, and more than 50 dissidents were hauled away, hours before Obama's arrival.

A happier demonstration is expected Tuesday at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano, where the Tampa Bay Rays will play an exhibition baseball game against the Cuban national team. The contest is a nod to the popular passtime the two countries share, and comes as Major Leage Baseball is negotiating a deal to let Cuban ballplayers sign with big league teams without having to defect.

In Havana'a central park, where baseball is a frequent topic of conversation, residents are looking forward to the matchup. Narcis Vallant says no matter which team comes out on top, both countries will be winners.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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