On the second day of a historic visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama met with Cuban leader Raúl Castro in a seminal moment amid the normalization of ties between the U.S. and the island nation.
The Cuban government received Obama at the Palace of the Revolution around 11 a.m. with great fanfare as a military band played the U.S. and Cuban national anthems. The two leaders shook hands when Obama arrived, then walked down a corridor where they stood at attention as a military band played, displaying the U.S and Cuban flags.
“We had a great tour yesterday,” Obama told Castro through an interpreter of his family’s Sunday night visit to Old Havana. “Enjoyed it.”
And he added, “we had a great dinner,” referring to the meal the first family had at one of Havana’s private, mostly family run restaurants, that have proliferated under the second Castro brother to be leader of Cuba.
The two walked over to the American delegation and Castro shook hands and chatted briefly with Secretary of State John Kerry, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes, the deputy National Security advisor who has led much of the efforts to restore ties with Cuba. Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, and Josefina Vidal, the Cuban diplomat who has led negotiations between the two nations, were also present.
The president arrived at palace for the official welcome ceremony after stopping by the José Martí Memorial for a wreath-laying ceremony.
“It is a great honor to pay tribute to José Martí, who gave his life for independence of his homeland,” Obama wrote in the guest book. “His passion for liberty, freedom, and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today.”
He was accompanied at the memorial by several apparently Cuban officials just after 10:30 a.m., stood at attention as a band played the Cuban National Anthem and then the U.S. National Anthem, followed by musical tribute to Jose Marti.
He stood before a wreath, then approached it and pulled the ribbons from it.
As the U.S. national anthem played, you could see sculptural outline of Che Guevara on a building near the Palace of the Revolution.
“You felt that it was a historic moment,” Kerry said.
Photo gallery: President Obama, first family arrive in Havana
Following a one-on-one meeting with Obama and Castro and a larger meeting with other government officials around midday, the two presidents will address the media Monday afternoon.
Kerry is also set to meet with Colombian peace negotiators who have spent three years in Havana working on a deal to end that country’s decades-long civil conflict.
Pretty remarkable to hear the anthems here, side by side, in Havana with the President of the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
The U.S. contingent arrived on a rainy Sunday afternoon at Jose Martí International Airport. Obama seemed to bring wild and windy weather with him. On Monday morning as a fleet of black Mercedes headed to official events along the Malecon, waves were crashing over the seawall.
The Obama administration has been commended by some and criticized by others for the visit, the first by a U.S. president since the 1920s and a significant moment in the continued thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Google to expand Internet access, Western Union to expand remittances to Cuba
Obama told ABC News in an interview from Havana that will air Monday night that “change is going to happen” in Cuba and that he believes President Castro “understands that.”
Obama has been criticized for breaking his own promise to visit the island after its government had instituted more reforms, but he told ABC that the “time is right.”
“Obviously our intention has always been to get a ball rolling, knowing that change wasn’t going to happen overnight. ... We felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change. ... And it gives us, I think, the opportunity before I leave office to continue to stay on track in moving things forward,” Obama said.
Despite Obama visit, global spotlight, Havana cracks down on dissidents
The presidential delegation includes members of Congress and American business representatives, but Obama told ABC it was “very important for the United States not to view ourselves as the agents of change here, but rather to encourage and facilitate Cubans themselves to bring about changes. ... We want to make sure that whatever changes come about are empowering Cubans.”
Obama also announced in the ABC interview that Google has reached a deal to provide more WiFi and broadband access in Cuba where most homes have no Internet access.
“Over time, if in fact, we start seeing access to the internet, which is necessary for Cuba to enter into the 21st century economically, invariably that gives the Cuban people more information and allows them to have more of a voice,” Obama said.
He said the Cuban government “would like to control the speed” at which change occurs, but said “We think that rather have change happen to you, it’s better to get out in front.
“The government has the ability to recognize where the future is and start preparing the ground,” he said.
On a day when Obama was scheduled to meet with Cuban entrepreneurs, representatives from state enterprises and U.S. executives, Western Union Co. announced it would begin sending remittances from around the world to Cuba.
Previously, Western Union could only offer remittance services from the United States to Cuba. But recent U.S. regulatory and policy changes mean 1.4 million Cubans and others who live outside the United States will be able to transfer money to the island too.
“As we have found in other parts of the world, expanding remittances will provide a vital opportunity to improve the standard of living for Cuban people, contribute to savings and eventually investment towards small-businesses,” said Odilon Almeida, Western Union’s president of the Americas and European Union.
Remittances to Cuba reached $2.8 billion in 2013 with 90 percent originating in the United States, according to Western Union.
This story will be updated throughout the day. Check back for updates.
MIAMI HERALD REPORTERS PATRICIA MAZZEI, EL NUEVO HERALD REPORTER NORA GÁMEZ TORRES, MCCLATCHY REPORTERS LESLEY CLARK AND FRANCO ORDOÑEZ AND MIAMI HERALD SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT SPENCER PARTS REPORTED FROM HAVANA. MIAMI HERALD REPORTERS JIM WYSS AND JOEY FLECHAS REPORTED FROM MIAMI.