Obama lands in Cuba, marking the beginning of historic visit

HAVANA -- President Barack Obama landed in Cuba Sunday afternoon, a trip that took more than half a century to arrive only 90 miles from U.S. shores.

Stepping off Air Force One under drizzling skies, the president held an umbrella over his wife Michelle and greeted several senior Cuban officials - but not its president, Raúl Castro.

The Obamas, including the president's two daughters and his mother-in-law, were greeted on the tarmac by Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba's Foreign Minister and Josefina Vidal, the head of the U.S. section of Cuba's Foreign Ministry, as well as Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba. The official welcoming session will take place Monday morning when Obama meets with Castro at the presidential palace.

Obama arrived amid high anticipation and anxiety on the island within both the Communist government and its political opposition. The government hopes the two-day visit will reap benefits without ceding control, while dissidents on the island want it to speed the pace of change.

For Obama, the trip is affirmation of his foreign policy vision and could encourage a generational change within the walls of one of America's longest and most bitter adversaries. Before his arrival, there were familiar signs it will not come easy.

As Sunday-morning Mass ended at Havana's Santa Rita church, several dozen women in white T-shirts filed out, assembled in rows and began walking silently down the street. A block away, hundreds of uniformed security personnel and plain-clothed men and women stood waiting.

They met at the corner in a melee of shouting and manhandling. The women in white went limp on the pavement, shouting "Freedom, freedom, freedom!" and throwing leaflets into the air. The security teams half-dragged, half-carried them to waiting buses.

A number of men marching with the women were chased, thrown to the curb and handcuffed. As the buses drove away, the protesters lifted defiant fists through the windows while the plain-clothed crowd chanted "This is Fidel's street!"

The Sunday-morning demonstration of the Ladies in White dissident group is a regular occurrence in Havana. The size of the security force and the fact that the entire operation was conducted in front of international television cameras hours before the arrival here of Obama were not.

All the cross-currents and contradictions of Cuba and its changing relationship with the United States have been on display in the past two days. On Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard fished out 18 Cubans trying to reach Florida on homemade rafts. They reported that nine others had drowned on the journey.

Late Saturday, the Starwood hotel chain signed a mega-deal with the Cuban government to manage three hotels on the island, the first U.S. entrance into the tourist business here in more than 60 years. On Sunday morning, Cubans crowded around their televisions to watch a hilarious phone conversation Obama taped Friday with the island's best-known comedian.

"I'm looking forward to it," a beaming Obama said of his upcoming visit here.

Hours later, the Ladies in White were attacked.

"We want to see results" from the U.S. opening, said José Daniel Ferrer, head of Cuba's largest dissident organization, the Cuban Patriotic Union. "But Obama himself has said not to expect spectacular results . . . and he has been exactly right."

Ferrer and several other dissident leaders who gathered Sunday morning - all of whom have been invited to a private meeting with Obama on Tuesday morning - argued among themselves about the pace of change and the intransigence of the government. They agreed they are not expecting short-term liberalization. But, they said, the combined weight of the U.S. opening and the generational change in Cuba's aging leadership would inevitably bring down the system here.

"It's already easier to criticize Raúl than it was Fidel," Ferrer said of the current Castro president, and his brother and predecessor. "The next will be easier still." Raúl Castro has said he will step down in 2018.

"In the long run, this could be like a poison steak for the regime," he said of normalization. "It will taste good, but you'll eventually get a stomach ache."

The Obama administration "knows that Fidel Castro is about to turn 90," and that Raúl is only a few years behind, said Guillermo Fariñas, head of the United Anti-Totalitarian Forum. "A new generation is coming, with ever less moral authority" to claim it is promoting a popular revolution, which took place long before most Cubans were born.

Nearly a dozen dissidents are expected at the meeting with Obama. They have been told they will be picked up by U.S. officials at their homes and taken to the U.S. Embassy here two hours before the meeting, presumably to avoid the past government practice of sequestering in their homes those it does not want meeting with prominent foreign visitors. At the embassy, they will watch and listen to Obama's broadcast speech to the nation.

Most said they were going to wait to hear what he has to tell them before deciding what they want to ask the U.S. president. "Ten minutes will be enough for him to say a lot of things," Ferrer said of the speech, scheduled for 40 minutes. "It's a unique opportunity," he said. "Every Cuban is going to want to see if he projects an image of non-complicity with the government, if he will be transparent."

Far from Sunday's protests, Obama and his family first traveled to the U.S. Embassy along the Malecon waterfront, which was officially reopened in August by Secretary of State John Kerry. After meeting with embassy staff, the Obamas are scheduled to take a brief walking tour Sunday of Old Havana, the capital's 500-year-old historic quarter, soon after they arrive. Scenes of their visit to its spiffed-up colonial plazas and colonnaded streetscapes are likely to stir up even more interest among would-be American travelers.

In a part of the Old Havana neighborhood that isn't on the president's route, where families live in crowded, crumbling tenements and few tourists stray, several families spoke with measured excitement about his visit - especially the chance that it would bring more American visitors.

"I hope it brings more investment," said Juan Álvarez, whose bicycle rickshaw was adorned with a plastic American flag. "We just want to live in peace."

Alberto Moreno, 35, a cook at a brewery, said he thought Obama's visit would show that "Cuba is not the disaster that people in the United States think it is."

"This will probably be the first country Obama visits where there is no one protesting his visit," said Moreno - and given that public demonstrations are banned, he is almost certainly right.

Obama seemed to have made a favorable impression ahead of his arrival by appearing in a skit with Cuba's best-known comedian, Pánfilo. The two discuss his trip by phone and the dimwitted Pánfilo offers the U.S. president a ride from the airport and use of his double bed - warning Obama that Michelle will rest more comfortably on the side that doesn't have a spring sticking out.

Deroy Aponte, 28, who watched the video on Telesur, the Venezuelan network that is broadcast full time here, said he'd never seen a powerful political figure do something like that. "It made a big impression on me," he said.

The U.S. president seems to be "open-minded, reasonable, and someone capable of putting himself in others' shoes," said Aponte, who works as a repairman for cigar-making machinery.

For Americans wanting to travel to Cuba, the contradictions are stark. As the Ladies in White began their ill-fated march, several held a banner that read "Obama: Traveling to Cuba Isn't Fun. No more human rights violations."