to meet Raul Castro on historic Cuba trip
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[March 21, 2016]
By Daniel Trotta and Matt Spetalnick
HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack
Obama turns from sightseeing to state business on his historic Cuba trip
on Monday, pressing President Raul Castro for economic and democratic
reforms while hearing complaints about continued U.S. economic
Obama and Castro will have their fourth meeting, likely their most
substantial, at the Palace of the Revolution, where Castro and his
predecessor, older brother Fidel Castro, have led Cuba's resistance
to U.S. pressure going back decades.
A U.S. presidential visit to the inner sanctum of Cuban power would
have been unthinkable before Obama and Raul Castro's rapprochement
15 months ago, when they agreed to end a Cold War-era dispute that
lasted five decades and continued even after the collapse of the
The two leaders have deep differences to discuss as they attempt to
rebuild the bilateral relationship.
Obama is under pressure from critics at home to push Castro's
Communist government to allow dissent from political opponents and
further open its Soviet-style command economy.
His aides have said Obama will encourage more economic reforms and
greater access to the Internet for Cubans. His administration hopes
such changes might come at a Communist Party congress next month but
doubts any political opening will be forthcoming.
Still, Obama has promised to talk about freedom of speech and
assembly in Cuba. "I will raise these issues directly with President
Castro," he told the Cuban dissident group the Ladies in White in a
March 10 letter.
Castro has said Cuba will not waver from its 57-year-old revolution
and government officials say the United States needs to end its
economic embargo and return the Guantanamo Bay naval base to Cuba
before the two nations can enjoy normal relations.
Cuban police backed by hundreds of shouting pro-government
demonstrators broke up a Ladies in White march on Sunday, detaining
dozens of people just hours before Obama landed.
Obama has urged Congress to rescind the 54-year-old embargo but has
been rejected by the Republican leadership. He now has both
Democratic and Republican elected officials with him on his Cuba
trip and hopes Congress may act after the Nov. 8 presidential
One Cuban yelled "Down with the embargo!" during Obama's tour of Old
Havana, and the president responded by raising his right hand.
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Thwarted by Congress on the embargo, Obama has instead used his
executive authority to loosen restrictions on trade and travel with
the Caribbean island.
Cuba has praised those measures but Castro will likely use the
meeting on Monday to press Obama to go further.
"We think the U.S. government can take more steps to send clear and
direct signals in this direction," Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo
Malmierca told reporters on Sunday.
Obama and Castro met for half an hour during a regional summit in
Panama last April and they also had brief encounters at Nelson
Mandela's funeral in 2013 and at the U.N. General Assembly last
Traveling with his family, Obama was greeted by cheering crowds on
the road from the airport and while on a walking tour of Old Havana
Besides meeting Castro, he also plans to visit a state-owned micro
brewery and attend a state dinner on Monday.
On Tuesday, he will deliver a speech on live Cuban television and
attend an exhibition game between Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay
Rays and Cuba's national team.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Nelson Acosta, Frank Jack
Daniel and Diego Oré; Editing by Kieran Murray)
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