Obama in Cuba: 'Road ahead will not be easy' to solve 'very serious differences' between nations

"Fortunately, we don't have to swim with sharks," President Obama said Monday of the differences between the United States and Cuba.

Andrew V. Pestano, Amy R. Connolly and Doug G. Ware
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban citizens in Havana on Sunday. Obama's arrival Sunday marked the first visit to the island nation by any sitting American president since Calvin Coolidge visited in January 1928. Photo courtesy The White House/Ben Rhodes
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban citizens in Havana on Sunday. Obama's arrival Sunday marked the first visit to the island nation by any sitting American president since Calvin Coolidge visited in January 1928. Photo courtesy The White House/Ben Rhodes

HAVANA, March 21 (UPI) -- The last time an American president had set foot on Cuban soil, the United States was on the precipice of the Great Depression. Monday, President Barack Obama's visit coincided with a new diplomatic era that both nations hope will bring unprecedented economic prosperity.

Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro early Monday to begin the first face-to-face communications with the island's leader in nearly 90 years. After the initial meet, the leaders spoke to the news media and addressed what they said has been a giant leap forward in U.S.-Cuban relations.


"We are grateful for the opportunity to experience old Havana and some excellent Cuban food," Obama said in his opening remarks.

"This is a time of new hope for the future," he continued. "President Castro, I want to thank you for your courtesy and the spirit of openness that you have shown during our talks.

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"Our growing engagement with Cuba is guided by one overarching goal -- advancing the mutual interests of our two countries, including improving the lives of our people, both Cubans and Americans. That's why I'm here."


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Obama started Monday at the Plaza of the Revolution, where he adjusted a wreath at the statue of 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti. He was greeted by the military honor guard and the playing of the U.S. and Cuban national anthems.


Secretary of State John Kerry, who accompanied the White House delegation to Cuba, said it was "pretty remarkable to hear the anthems here, side by side, in Havana with the president of the United States."

Obama and Castro will continue to hold bilaterial meetings during the two-day summit, during which Obama is expected to focus on economic reforms that would allow the United States further access to the island nation and improved human rights to allow democratic reforms.

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The first meeting was a one-on-one with only translators, security and some top aides. A later meeting was scheduled to include top diplomats.

The first family arrived at Cuba's Jose Marti International Airport on Sunday afternoon. As they toured Havana, crowds gathered to take pictures -- some yelling, "We love you, Obama" and some chanting, 'USA! USA!'"

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"It's been nearly 90 years since a U.S. president stepped foot in Cuba. It is wonderful to be here," President Obama said upon his arrival. "For the first time ever, Air Force One has landed in Cuba, and this is our very first stop."


The Obamas made their way to Old Havana's Plaza de Arms, where they viewed a statue of Carlos Manuel De Cespedes, who declared Cuba's independence from Spanish rule in 1868 after freeing his slaves. Cespedes' uprising led to the Guerra de los Diez Años, or the Ten Years' War -- the first of multiple liberation wars against Spanish rule.

The first family also visited Havana's Museo De La Ciudad, or City Museum, where Spain's colonialist governors used to reside generations ago. Obama was greeted with a display of a painting of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, which was created by James R. Lambdin in 1863 and was gifted to Cuba in the 1960s.

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Cuban President Raul Castro officially welcomed Obama at the Palace of the Revolution, where the American leader was set to attend an entrepreneurship summit followed by a state dinner in the evening.

Despite his goal of thawing the traditionally frosty relations with Cuba, the White House said Obama will not meet with longtime former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who led Cuba between 1961 and 2011, during his visit.

Obama's Cuban visit marks the first by any sitting U.S. president in 88 years -- with 32,205 days having passed between former president Calvin Coolidge's trip in January 1928 and Obama's arrival Sunday.

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Each successive president avoided traveling to the Caribbean island, particularly after the communist revolution in 1959, until Obama announced last month that he would go.

Last year, the United States rapidly began reestablishing diplomatic relations with the island nation -- permitting new business from American companies and flights to the island, and removing the country from the U.S. government's "state sponsors of terror" blacklist.

Today, Air Force One touched down in Havana for the first time in history, marking a remarkable moment for the U.S. and Cuba, our governments and our people. Follow along as Americans share their experiences and stories from this incredible country: "As an American, visiting Cuba was an incredibly eye opening experience. We had no idea what to expect from a country that had been closed off for so long to us. From the breathtaking architecture, to the beautifully restored cars, to the warmth and hospitality of our amazing@Airbnb hosts -- no book or article we read could have prepared us for the incredibly inviting and lively culture we got to experience in person. We were the very first Americans that many of the locals had met--and the Cubans greeted us with excitement! The eagerness for the positive transformations ahead in their country was definitely shared by all. Thrilled for President Obama and his family as they leave the @WhiteHouse this week for their own" #CubaVisit Regram: @Underceej

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A photo posted by The White House (@whitehouse) on

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A crippling trade embargo, implemented by President Dwight Eisenhower in October 1960, though, remains in place -- although it, too, could soon be lifted.

"We continue, as President Castro indicated, to have some very serious differences -- including democracy and human rights," Obama noted. "President Castro and I have had some very frank and candid conversations on these subjects."

"The road ahead will not be easy. Fortunately, we don't have to swim with sharks to achieve the goals that [Castro] and I have set forth," Obama concluded. "As you say here in Cuba, 'echado para adelante' -- [which means] despite the difficulties, we will continue to move forward.

"If we stay on this course, we can deliver a better and brighter future for both the Cuban people and for the American people. Muchas gracias."

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