HAVANA (WSVN) — Barack Obama made history Sunday when he became the first sitting U.S. president in 88 years to set foot on Cuban soil.
Air Force One touched down at José Martí International Airport on a rainy afternoon, at 4:19 p.m. About 15 minutes later, the commander in chief smiled and waved as he emerged from the aircraft alongside Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, and the girls’ maternal grandmother, Marian Robinson.
In addition to his family, Obama was joined by a group of U.S. lawmakers and business leaders.
Obama held an umbrella as he made his way down the steps to the tarmac to embark on a whirlwind, nearly 48-hour whirlwind visit that has drawn both praise and criticism back home.
On hand to greet the first family was Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. But despite the handshakes and flowers, the greeting was noticeably low-key when compared to Pope Francis’ airport arrival in September.
Notably absent from the welcoming committee was President Raúl Castro, who had met the pontiff six months ago. He was not expected to be present.
The presidential limo, adorned with the U.S. and Cuban flags, then made its way to the Melia Habana Hotel, where Obama met with U.S. Embassy employees and their families. The president and the first lady were greeted with cheers as they walked into a small room at the hotel.
During his introduction, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, invoked Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan to drive home the historic change that’s taking place between the two countries. "Well, on U.S.-Cuba relations, like so many other issues he’s tackled in his presidency, we can now say, ‘Yes, we did’ … ‘Sí, lo hicimos.’"
Obama began his remarks with a lighthearted look at the history of the moment. "Back in 1928, President [Calvin] Coolidge came on a battleship. It took him three days to get here. It only took me three hours," he said.
He then dove right into the reason behind his visit. "This is a historic visit, and it’s a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people and to forge new agreements and commercial deals and ties between our two peoples, and for me to lay out my vision for a future that’s brighter than our past," he said.
¿Que bolá Cuba? Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.
— President Obama (@POTUS) March 20, 2016
From the Melia, the Obamas headed to Old Havana for a walking tour, and also to highlight the cornerstone of his Cuba policy — people-to-people contact — something he believes will lead to lasting change in the island over time. The U.S. president stopped at a painting of Abraham Lincoln inside the Templete, a small church in the Plaza de Armas.
Cheers went out outside the Havana Cathedral. Here Obama met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who is credited, along with Pope Francis, with helping forge a thaw of a half-century of bitterness between the U.S. and Cuba, two countries …. with only 90 miles between them.
The president and the first family had dinner at San Cristobal Paladar, a renowned family-owned restaurant, before calling it a night.
On Monday, Obama plans to hold several meetings with the Cuban president. He also plans to meet with political dissidents during his stay. He is not scheduled to meet with Fidel Castro during his visit.