Brushing off decades of distrust, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands on Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution, opening a meeting aimed at advancing the diplomatic opening that both leaders have pursued.
Obama and Castro stood together as a Cuban military band played the national anthems of Cuba and the United States — stunning sounds in a country where resistance to the US has been part of the government's national mission for decades. Obama and top US officials warmly greeted their Cuban counterparts before the two presidents sat down for their meeting.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama visit was "a historic moment", adding that it was "pretty remarkable to hear the anthems here, side by side, in Havana with the president of the United States."
For Obama, there's no better place than Havana to show that engagement can do more than isolation to bring about change on the communist island. Yet for the Cubans, the glaring question is whether their own government is ready to prove the ambitious diplomatic opening is more than just talk.
Obama opened his first full day in Cuba by adjusting a wreath at the memorial to Jose Marti, where a 59-foot statue pays tribute to the Cuban independence hero and writer. Obama arrived midmorning for a brief wreath-laying ceremony. Standing in a lineup of Cuba and US officials, the President listened as a military band played both the Cuban and American national anthem. He held his hand on his heart for the Star Spangled Banner and watched as three Cuba soldiers carried a massive wreath of red and white roses to the base of the Marti memorial. Obama made no remarks but signed a guest book. "It is a great honor to pay tribute to Jose Marti, who gave his life for independence of his homeland. His passion for liberty, freedom, and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today," Obama wrote in dark ink in the book after he toured the memorial.
Marti was an influential poet and journalist who became a symbol for Cuba's bid for independence against Spain in the 19th century.
Obama then entered the Palace of the Revolution where he was met by Castro before the two inspected a military honour guard. The palace was built after the 1959 revolution that turned Cuba into a communist state. He then sat for discussions with Castro in front of a backdrop of tall tropical plants and the two countries' flags.
Obama also planned an event Monday with US and Cuban entrepreneurs aimed at championing Cuba's fledgling private sector. He was to be feted in the evening at a state dinner, an honour illustrating just how far the US and Cuba have come despite their deep ideological differences.
Obama's visit to Cuba, the first by a US president in 88 years, has raised hopes among battling Cubans that decades of economic and political stasis may be coming to an end.
But the detention of dozens of pro-democracy protestors on Sunday and the deployment of a horde of secret police around Old Havana have served as a stark reminder of the regime's iron grip on power.
On the eve of the Castro-Obama meeting, White House officials were locked in talks with their Cuban counterparts to ensure the two leaders take even a few questions from the press.
Obama's administration is betting that opening Cuba's economy will be a bridgehead leading to political change.
But that has left him open to criticism that he has failed to secure immediate democratic change in return for a high profile presidential visit.
Arriving in Havana, Obama admitted change is not going to happen "overnight."
"Change is going to happen here and I think that Raul Castro understands that," he told ABC.
"Although we still have significant differences around human rights and individual liberties inside of Cuba, we felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change."
Obama will be keen to hear from Castro about economic and political changes that are likely to come from a key Communist Party congress in April.
Castro may be interested to hear how Obama's policy of engagement can weather a turbulent election year and change of administration next January.
The meeting is only the third formal encounter between Obama and the brother of Fidel Castro, who handed over the presidency in 2008.
At stake is the historic shift to end the Cold War conflict, which has seen Washington try to bring Cuba to its knees through an economic embargo, while Havana, a close Soviet ally, became enemy territory.
The trip has been touted mostly for its huge symbolic value, and comes more than a year after Obama and Castro surprised the world in December 2014 by announcing that their countries would begin normalizing relations.
"The presence of a US president on the island for the first time since the 1959 revolution marks a transcendental change in relations between the US and Cuba," Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said.
But some tough issues are up for discussion.
Although the embargo can only be lifted by Congress, where Republicans are far less keen on rapprochement, the Obama administration is chipping away at the edges of the sanctions.
For example, a trickle of US visitors over recent years is soon expected to turn into a flood with the lifting of an onerous requirement that they go to Cuba as part of pre-approved groups.
"I don't think Obama's visit will have an immediate impact on Cuban politics, much less on the near-term decisions of the regime," Shifter said.
"Full normalisation will take a lot of time and will be a complex process. To advance, the US Congress needs to go further in lifting the embargo and Cuba needs to speed up its political and economic opening and improve its human rights."
On Tuesday, Obama will meet with a few human rights activists. He will also give a speech — the main set piece of his trip — that will be carried live on Cuban television, an unprecedented concession from the authorities.
He will round off the trip by attending a baseball game between the Cuban national team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.
Although meant to be a celebration of shared love for the game, the occasion will also highlight yet another cause of tension: the talent drain of Cuban stars attracted by the lure of the big-money US circuit.
In another major piece of Latin American business, Kerry, who is traveling with Obama, was due to meet separately on Monday with representatives of the Colombian government and the Marxist FARC rebels, according to a Colombian negotiator.
They have been negotiating in Cuba since 2012 to end their more than 50-year war. Both sides have acknowledged that a Wednesday deadline they had set themselves will pass without the signing of a final accord.
With inputs from agencies
Published Date: Mar 22, 2016 09:00 AM | Updated Date: Mar 22, 2016 10:38 AM