Barack Obama Arrives In Cuba: First Visit In 88 Years For A United States President

Anya Wassenberg

President Barack Obama arrives in Cuba today on a historic visit to the island nation. The president is traveling with First Lady Michelle Obama along with daughters Sasha and Malia for a visit that has both symbolic and practical goals.

In a brief, 48-hour visit, Barack Obama's schedule while in Cuba will include a meeting with Raul Castro and Catholic leader Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and he will speak with both Cuban dissidents and entrepreneurs hoping to profit from new opportunities. While he's in Cuba, Barack Obama will also deliver a speech to the Cuban people that will be widely broadcast throughout Latin America, and the First Family will attend an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

Barack Obama is the first sitting United States president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge made the trip in 1928 in a battleship. For almost a half century, Cuba's communist regime under Fidel Castro -- just 90 miles off the coast of Florida -- was a thorn in the side of the United States government.

Although the U.S. trade embargo is still legally in place, President Barack Obama paved the way for the trip with a series of regulatory changes that resulted in resuming mail delivery and loosening regulations on travel, exports, and business to allow for commercial flights between Cuba and the United States. Other initiatives have included cooperation on law enforcement and environmental issues. While significant in a symbolic and historical sense, Barack Obama's visit to Cuba is only the beginning of what a Reuters report is calling an "economic invasion."

While effective -- and much hated in Cuba -- the United States was alone in maintaining the trade embargo. European allies and Canada, among others, have long profited from the Cuban tourism industry, and that's one of the first areas where U.S. interests are expecting to take advantage of the new opportunities opened up by the rapprochement initiated by Barack Obama. Just yesterday, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc., one of the world's largest hotel chains, announced the conversion of three Cuban hotels into Starwood-brand franchises. The Treasury Department has also approved requests from Airbnb Inc. and Marriott International to pursue doing business in Cuba.

Barack Obama has taken heat from right-wing critics who insist his visit to Cuba sends the wrong message to the Castro regime. President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba has been strongly criticized by right-wing politicians and pundits, including GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Human rights are another subject of contention between Cuba and the United States and Barack Obama will urge the Castro regime to improve its record. According to a Reuters report, more than 200 activists were detained in the days leading up to Barack Obama's visit to Cuba.

"If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody. I've made very clear in my conversations directly with President Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba."

The United States trade embargo of Cuba has been a point of contention throughout Latin America and with his trip to Cuba, Barack Obama is hoping to forge greater ties throughout the region. Jonathan Hansen, a Harvard University historian and specialist on Guantanamo, is writing a biography about Fidel Castro. He commented to Bloomberg.

"The Latin Americans are really amazed by our enduring enmity to Castro. Having a reciprocal, respectful recognition of Cuba as a country that's struggling on its own terms, to treat them like they have a right to exist, is really important for Latin America."

[Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]