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The Obamas‘ tour of Old Havana was nearly a washout on Sunday evening as a deluge of rain came down minutes after they landed in Cuba for an historic three-day visit to the communist country.
The first family pressed on, despite the stormy skies, strolling through the Plaza des Armas as they huddled under umbrellas and made their way to the Museo de la Ciudad, the museum of Cuba’s capital city, and on to Havana Cathedral.
President Obama’s family – particularly his daughter Sasha – looked less than pleased as they perched underneath their blue and black umbrellas.
As the Obamas taxied towards their motorcade, the president wrote on Twitter: ‘¿Que bolá Cuba? (What’s up Cuba?). Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.’
Cuban dictator Raul Castro did not greet them on the tarmac, leaving the country’s foreign minister to conduct the greetings and handshakes instead. Castro has a meeting with the U.S. president this morning, but Obama will not come face-to-face with former leader, Fidel Castro.
As he arrived in the country, Obama admitted that Cuba had work to do to correct its poor human rights record, but said: ‘Change is going to happen.’
Obama told ABC News of the visit, ‘The time is right. Obviously our intention has always been to get a ball rolling, knowing that change wasn’t going to happen overnight.
‘And 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,’ he said. ‘And it gives us, I think, the opportunity before I leave office to continue to stay on track in moving things forward.
President Obama, his wife Michelle, children Sasha and Malia and the first lady’s mother, Marian Robinson, touched down in Havana at 4:20pm ET on Sunday, with the first drops of rain falling as the Obamas walked down the Air Force One steps.
Obama is the first sitting president in nearly 90 years to visit the island, in a trip the White House says will ‘deepen’ America’s relationship with the authoritarian government following more than half a century of tension.
Obama and his entourage were whisked off the runway to Melia Habana hotel to meet with U.S. embassy staff before their tour of Old Havana, a family excursion that was ill-fated, given the torrential downpour, but left on the schedule nonetheless as the U.S. president made a symbolic display of solidarity with the Cuban people.
Cuban and American flags flew from the president’s car as it left the airport in the direction of central Havana.
‘This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity,’ Obama told embassy staff as he greeted them and reflected on the seven months since the embassy reopened in Havana last July. ‘I want you to know, everyone we’ve accomplished so far, it’s all happening because of you. Every day you’re bringing the US and Cuba closer together.’
Obama was later cheered as he passed through a square outside Havana Cathedral, with hundreds of people erupting in applause and shouting the president’s name as the first family stepped forward.
The Obamas then dined at a privately-owned restaurant in a bustling, working class neighborhood. Jubilant crowds surged toward the president’s heavily fortified motorcade as it inched towards the San Cristobal restaurant.
After a short dinner, the Obamas headed to the ambassador’s residence, where they are staying during their visit.
The first family will now spend two days on the island, then fly to Argentina for another two before returning to Washington, DC, just before the Easter holiday.
Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump accused Castro of disrespecting the United States by not meeting Obama at the airport.
‘Wow, President Obama just landed in Cuba, a big deal, and Raul Castro wasn’t even there to greet him. He greeted Pope and others. No respect,’ Trump tweeted.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democrat seeking to replace Obama in the White House, meanwhile praised the president for ‘making history by traveling to Cuba and moving relations between our two countries into a new era’.
‘This is an approach that is long overdue….Fifty years of Cold War is enough. It is time for Cuba and the United States to turn the page and normalize relations,’ Sanders said.
The president is scheduled to meet with dissidents of the oppressive government, as well as the country’s leader, Castro, during his visit. He will also give a televised speech from Havana’s national theater, Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso.
Amid the fanfare of Obama’s arrival, as many as 50 protesters demonstrating against Cuba’s poor human rights record were arrested in Havana, including the leader of women-run democracy campaign group who was arrested in a Castro regime crackdown.
Obama’s first stop after landing in Cuba was meeting with staff at the recently re-opened embassy. The inclement weather meant the president chatted with workers at a nearby hotel instead of the consulate.
The president said: ‘Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship, it took him three days to get here. It only took me three hours.
‘Having a US embassy means we’re more effectively able to advance our values, our interests and understand more effectively.’
Speaking to diplomatic staff, he added: ‘I’m so glad you brought your families here because I always like taking pictures with kids. Their future is what we all work for so hard and I’m so grateful to all of you for making it happen.’
The U.S. operated out of the embassy during the detente between the U.S. and the Castro regime from 1977 until the summer of 2015, but it was under the authority of the Swiss government, which served as the protecting power.
It officially assumed the role of the United States’ mission in Cuba on July 20, 2015, when diplomatic ties were formally restored.