Obama kicks off historic trip to Cuba; protesters rounded up before arrival

Dozens of protesters arrested before Obama's arrival in Cuba

Hours before President Barack Obama landed in Cuba, Cuban officials arrested some 50 protesters of a key dissidents group, the Ladies in White.
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Hours before President Barack Obama landed in Cuba, Cuban officials arrested some 50 protesters of a key dissidents group, the Ladies in White.

When President Barack Obama lands in Havana Sunday afternoon, it will mark the beginning of a three-day trip that’s expected to highlight the growing ties between the Cold War foes, even as old wounds fester.

Obama, his family, and a large delegation of lawmakers are expected to arrive at José Martí International Airport beginning at 4:30 p.m. EST.

Dozens of opposition protesters, including members of the Ladies in White, were rounded up just hours before Air Force One touched down.

The Republican National Committee blasted Obama's trip ahead of his arrival, criticizing it as a “historic mistake” and charging that by traveling now Obama is breaking his own promise to only visit Cuba if it showed more human rights progress.

“The president's trip is not about Cuban liberal movement, it is about legacy,” the RNC said in an email, noting that “Hillary Clinton is a steadfast supporter of Obama's trip and shift in Cuba policy.”

The historic trip is rich in symbolism and opportunities. Along with lawmakers, a large delegation of business leaders are on the island to attend an entrepreneurship event on Tuesday.

U.S. companies have been eager to do business in Cuba, but leery of working with the Cuban government. The Obama administration is hoping the trip will assuage some of those concerns.

Deal Making

In one of the biggest U.S.-Cuba business deals since the rapprochement, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide announced Saturday that the U.S. Treasury Department had given it permission to manage two hotels in Cuba. The historic Hotel Inglaterra will become part of the chain’s Luxury Collection and the Hotel Quinta Avenida will be rebranded as a Four Points by Sheraton.

Starwood also has signed a letter of intent with the Cuban company Habaguanex to manage the Hotel Santa Isabel and will be seeking U.S. Treasury approval.

That news came on the heels of Airbnb announcement, in which the room sharing site said it has Treasury authority to offer lodging to all travelers in Cuba, not just Americans. 

After meeting with U.S. Embassy staff Sunday afternoon, Obama and his family are scheduled to tour Havana’s historic center in the evening.

Habana Vieja and other parts of the city along Obama’s motorcade route have been painted and prepped for the visit, even as other parts of the city remain neglected.

One of the highlights of the trip will be President Obama’s nationally televised speech Tuesday, when he is expected to talk about Cuba’s human rights record. On Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Little Havana in Miami to protest the trip.

Obama will remain in Havana until Tuesday, when he continues his journey to Argentina.

The much-anticipated visit marks the first time in more than 80 years that a a U.S. president has visited the island and comes amid warming relations between Havana and Washington. The last U.S. presidential visit was by Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Obama’s visit also marks the beginning of a hectic week in Cuba. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be meeting with Colombian peace negotiators who have been in Havana for more than three years trying to hammer out a deal to end that nation’s half-century civil conflict.

On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays will play against the Cuban national team, and on Friday the Rolling Stones will be offering a free concert that’s expected to draw hundreds of thousands.

Miami Herald Staff Writers Mimi Whitefield and Patricia Mazzei contributed from Havana. McClatchy White House Correspondent Lesley Clark contributed from Washington, D.C.

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