By JOSH LEDERMAN and MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN
Brushing past profound differences, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro will sit down Monday at Havana’s Palace of the Revolution for a historic meeting, offering critical clues about whether the sharp U.S. U-turn in policy will be fully reciprocated.
For Obama, there’s no better place than Havana to show that engagement can do more than isolation to bring about tangible 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.
American companies, eager for opportunities in Cuba, were wasting no time. Obama announced that tech giant Google struck a deal to expand Wi-Fi and broadband Internet on the island 90 miles south of Florida.
“The time is right,” Obama told ABC News. “We felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change, particularly because this has been welcomed by the Cuban people with enormous popularity.”
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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. Hand on his heart, Obama stood in Revolution Square as a band played the American national anthem — stunning sounds in a country where resistance to the U.S. has been part of the government’s national mission for decades.
He then entered the Palace of the Revolution and shook hands with Raul Castro before the two inspected a military honor guard.
Since taking power in 2008, Castro has orchestrated economic and social reforms with lasting and broad-based impact, though to many Cubans and foreigners they appear slow to materialize. Not only are hundreds of thousands of Cubans now able to pursue free enterprise, but restrictions on cellphones and Internet have been eased and citizens feel more comfortable discussing Cuba’s problems.
Yet Castro has given little ground when it comes to changing Cuba’s single-party system or easing strict limits on media, assembly and political dissent. His government has also repeatedly chided Obama for saying he wanted to empower Cubans.
None of that has dissuaded Obama, who insists that any intransigence by Cuba’s government only proves why Cubans will be better off when they’re intimately exposed to American values.
“Let God will that this is good for all Cubans,” said Odilia Collazo, a 79-year-old Havana resident, as she watched Obama’s arrival on state television. “It seems to me that Obama wants to do something good before he leaves.”
To that end, Obama came to Havana hoping his visit would spur Castro to offer gestures of good faith and meaningful change, which would undermine critics who accuse Obama of kowtowing to an authoritarian government. Though Cuba approved U.S. hotel chains Starwood and Marriott to operate here and moved to lift fees on converting U.S. dollars, those steps pale in comparison to sweeping changes Obama has enacted to lift decades-old U.S. restrictions.
Obama also planned an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs aimed at championing Cuba’s fledgling private sector. He was to be feted in the evening at a state dinner, an honor illustrating just how far the U.S. and Cuba have come despite their deep ideological differences.
His visit was to continue Tuesday with a major speech that Cuban officials said would be carried on TV. Before departing for Argentina, Obama planned to meet with political dissidents and attend a game between Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s beloved national team.
In his first few hours on the island, Obama created indelible images of a new U.S-Cuba relationship as he walked the rain-soaked streets of Havana and dined at a privately-owned restaurant in a bustling, working-class neighborhood. Jubilant crowds surged toward his heavily fortified motorcade, reminders of the Cuban people’s deep affection for Americans despite decades of enmity between their governments.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.