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Obama To Meet With Cuban President Raul Castro


We're watching history unfold in Cuba this week. President Obama is on the ground in Havana. He is set to meet today with Cuban President Raul Castro, an important moment as we watch more than a half-century of isolation come to an end.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us on the line from Havana. And Scott, let's just begin with the visuals here. What was it like to see Air Force One touch down in Cuba?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: David, it was quite a spectacle to see the president and Mrs. Obama descending the steps of Air Force One in a light rain followed by their daughters and Mrs. Obama's mother. The family took a quick tour of Old Havana. They visited the cathedral here. They met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega. He along with Pope Francis, of course, was very encouraging of this diplomatic opening. The president also met with the staff of the newly reopened U.S. Embassy here where he noted that he's the first president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge 88 years ago.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people and to forge new agreements and commercial deals to build new ties between our two peoples and for me to lay out my vision for a future that's brighter than our past.

HORSLEY: And the president will lay out that vision tomorrow in a televised speech to the Cuban people. He'll suggest that with the U.S. easing travel and trade restrictions on Cuba, the Castro government won't find it so easy to use the U.S. embargo as an excuse for all of Cuba's problems.

GREENE: Well, Scott, what about that embargo? I feel like that's one of the really difficult things to figure out as this thaw has been happening. The Obama administration has been chipping away at the embargo, but it's still in place. Are we getting clarity on that on this trip?

HORSLEY: Well, the administration wants Congress to lift the embargo altogether. And there are more than three dozen lawmakers accompanying the president on this strip, both Republicans and Democrats. He's also accompanied by some U.S. business leaders, including executives from Airbnb and Starwood Hotels. Starwood just inked a deal to manage three hotel properties in Cuba, and that joint venture with the government is expected to pump millions of dollars into renovations of those hotels.

The U.S. government has been making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba on their own as well as in organized groups. And Obama thinks encouraging more of that kind of people-to-people connection will help pry open Cuba's sclerotic economy and its political system. Now, a lot of people...

GREENE: Well, how...

HORSLEY: ...Have been asking if Obama would meet with Fidel Castro during this trip.


HORSLEY: He's not scheduled to do so because Raul Castro is the head of the state, though. The White House says Raul is the appropriate person to be on the other side of this historic meeting.

GREENE: Sure. But I guess that's one big unanswered question as this visit goes forward. Scott, how are ordinary Cubans on the streets reacting to this visit and all of this happening?

HORSLEY: David, everybody I've spoken with is excited by this visit. A lot of people say they were both surprised and delighted when this opening was first announced 15 months ago. At the same time, public expression to that excitement have been a little bit muted. You know, we haven't seen the sort of huge crowds in public, for example, that greeted Pope Francis when he came to Cuba last fall. Cuba expert Richard Feinberg whose with the University of California, San Diego, says the Castro government has been careful to discourage such public displays of affection for this president.

RICHARD FEINBERG: Imagine if they start to chant - Obama, Obama - and even more amazing, if they started to chant - U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A - because most Cubans do have very favorable views of both visiting President Obama and of the United States. So those were risks that the Cuban government were not willing to take.

HORSLEY: Quietly, though, Cubans are cheering this visit, and polls show majority of folks back home also approve - and so do governments elsewhere in the hemisphere, who are happy to see the U.S. set aside its policy of isolating Cuba, a policy that, ironically, had the effect of isolating the United States.

GREENE: All right, Scott. Thanks a lot.

HORSLEY: Great to be with you, David.

GREENE: It's NPR's Scott Horsley who is traveling with the president in Havana, Cuba. And you heard him on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene here at Youth Radio in Oakland, Calif.


And I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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