Obama to press Castro to open up Cuba

Tourists and local residents taking pictures during the visit of Mr Obama to Old Havana on Sunday. US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in their first meeting on the second day of the American leader's visit to Cuba. Mr Obama is
US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in their first meeting on the second day of the American leader's visit to Cuba. Mr Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in 88 years.PHOTO: REUTERS
Tourists and local residents taking pictures during the visit of Mr Obama to Old Havana on Sunday. US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in their first meeting on the second day of the American leader's visit to Cuba. Mr Obama is
Tourists and local residents taking pictures during the visit of Mr Obama to Old Havana on Sunday.PHOTO: REUTERS
United States President Barack Obama and his family touring Old Havana on the first day of their historic visit to Cuba. The trip opens a new chapter in the US’ engagement with Cuba’s communist government after decades of hostility between the fo
United States President Barack Obama and his family touring Old Havana on the first day of their historic visit to Cuba. The trip opens a new chapter in the US’ engagement with Cuba’s communist government after decades of hostility between the former Cold War foes.PHOTO: REUTERS

Plenty of excitement among Cubans who see visit as hope for change

HAVANA • US President Barack Obama was set to turn from sightseeing to state business on his historic Cuba trip by pressing President Raul Castro for economic and democratic reforms while hearing complaints about continued US economic sanctions.

Mr Obama and Mr Castro were due to have their fourth meeting, likely their most substantial, at the Palace of the Revolution early today Singapore time, where Mr Castro and his predecessor, older brother Fidel, have led Cuba's resistance to US pressure going back decades.

A US presidential visit to the inner sanctum of Cuban power would have been unthinkable before Mr Obama and Mr Castro's rapprochement 15 months ago, when they agreed to end a Cold War-era dispute that has lasted five decades.

Mr Obama is under pressure from critics at home to push Mr Castro's communist government to allow dissent from political opponents and further open its Soviet-style command economy.

His aides have said Mr Obama will press for more economic reforms and greater access to the Internet for Cubans. His administration hopes such changes might come at a Communist Party congress next month but doubts any political opening will be forthcoming.

In a sign of greater opening, Alphabet Inc's Google has agreed to start setting up more Wi-Fi and broadband access on the island, Mr Obama said in an interview that aired yesterday.

The US President has promised to talk about freedom of speech and assembly in Cuba.

Just before Mr Obama landed, Cuban police backed by hundreds of shouting pro-government demonstrators broke up a Ladies in White march, detaining dozens of people. Ladies in White is a dissident group.

On trade and travel, Mr Obama has used his executive authority to loosen restrictions.

Cuba has praised the executive measures, but Mr Castro will likely use the meeting today to press the US leader to go further.

A US presidential visit to the inner sanctum of Cuban power would have been unthinkable before Mr Obama and Mr Castro's rapprochement 15 months ago, when they agreed to end a Cold War-era dispute that has lasted five decades.

Mr Castro has said Cuba will not waver from its 57-year-old revolution and government officials say the United States needs to end its 54-year-old economic embargo.

Cuba also complains about US control of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay under a 1934 lease agreement that Havana says is no longer valid and that Mr Obama has said is not up for discussion. Havana is unhappy with US support for dissidents.

None of this, though, seemed to curb the excitement over the first visit to Cuba by a US president in 88 years. Shouts of "USA!" and "Obama!" echoed over the stone plazas as Mr Obama and his family made their way around rain-slicked courtyards in Old Havana on Sunday evening, savouring the adulation of Cubans welcoming him warmly.

"Welcome to Cuba! We like you!" a man shouted as Mr Obama's entourage passed.

Outside the baseball stadium that Mr Obama will visit later today, Ms Juliet Garcia Gonzalez, 17, said she was glad he was visiting because he had given her generation hope, a rare commodity in a country that has long seemed stuck in place. She just wasn't sure it was enough.

"I want to travel; I want to leave," she said, tapping at her phone, connected through a new Wi-Fi hot spot outside the stadium.

"I want to come back when Cuba is better."

REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Obama to press Castro to open up Cuba'. Print Edition | Subscribe