The Latest: White House: Castro wasn't expected at airport

AP News
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Posted: Mar 20, 2016 8:03 PM
The Latest: White House: Castro wasn't expected at airport

HAVANA (AP) — The Latest on President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba (all times local):

8 p.m.

The White House says it's taking no offense that Cuban President Raul Castro didn't greet President Barack Obama upon arrival in Havana.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, says it was "never contemplated or discussed" that Castro would be at the airport.

He said the Cubans consider Monday morning's ceremony with Obama and Castro to be the official welcome event.

Several dignitaries were on hand at the airport, including Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cabanas.

But Castro's absence prompted GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump to tweet that it was a sign of "no respect." Castro previously has greeted Pope Francis on arrival during a September trip to Cuba and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill last month.

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6:55 p.m.

As part of their tour of Old Havana, the Obamas arrived at the Havana Cathedral in a heavy downpour, all carrying black umbrellas. First lady Michelle Obama held her mother's hand as they walked gingerly on the slippery wet stones in the square in front of the cathedral.

A few hundred people who had gathered in the square erupted in applause and shouted President Barack Obama's name as the first family stepped forward.

The president spent a few minutes greeting some people in the crowd before the family entered the cathedral.

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6:15 p.m.

The wife and daughter of the late baseball player Jackie Robinson are among the guests President Barack Obama has brought with him to Cuba.

Rachel Robinson, the widow of the baseball star, and Sharon Robinson, his daughter, were among the travelers on Air Force One.

Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier, played in Cuba in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers holding their spring training there.

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5:55 p.m.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is taking Cuban President Raul Castro to task for not welcoming President Barack Obama at the airport in Havana.

Trump tweeted: "Wow, President Obama just landed in Cuba, a big deal, and Raul Castro wasn't even there to greet him. He greeted Pope and others. No respect."

Trump has said if elected president he would try to negotiate a better deal with Cuba, but has also said he's "fine" with the U.S. pursuing a new approach. His top GOP rival, Ted Cruz, is the son of a Cuban and opposes Obama's policy.

Castro makes relatively few public appearances. But Castro did greet Pope Francis on arrival during a September trip to Cuba and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill last month.

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5:45 p.m.

President Barack Obama says his trip to Cuba is an "historic opportunity to engage with the Cuban people."

Obama spoke to a few dozen embassy staff and families at a Havana hotel in his first stop after arriving in Cuba. He says it's wonderful to be in Cuba and is noting that an American president hasn't stepped foot in Cuba in nearly 90 years.

Obama is recalling former President Calvin Coolidge's visit in 1928, when he arrived in a battleship. Obama says it took Coolidge three days to get to Cuba, but only took him three hours.

Obama is singling out three Cubans who have worked at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba for decades: a guard, driver and a worker from the visa section. He says they bring the Cuban and American people together. Before the U.S. reopened its embassy, it had only a U.S. interests sections in Havana.

Obama is thanking people for bringing their children to meet him, saying he hopes that by the time they're adults, they'll "think it's natural that a U.S. president is visiting Cuba."

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5:30 p.m.

President Barack Obama's first message to Cubans after landing in Havana came in an unlikely format: Twitter.

"¿Que bolá Cuba?" Obama wrote — Spanish for "how's it going?" He sent the message from his @POTUS account, which the White House has said consists of tweets from the president, not his staff.

Obama says he's just touched down in Cuba and is "looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people."

Very few Cubans use Twitter. Despite the opening of dozens of public Wi-Fi spots across the country since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro moved to restore relations in 2014, Cuba still has one of the world's lowest rates of Internet use. Wi-Fi costs $2 an hour, close to a tenth of the average Cuban monthly salary. Facebook tends to be more popular here than Twitter.

Obama's events while in Cuba will take place almost entirely in Cuban government sites with tightly controlled guest lists. Some Cubans complained ahead the trip that they will not get to see or interact with the president.

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5:10 p.m.

A host of dignitaries were on hand for President Barack Obama's arrival in Havana — with one notable absence.

The Obamas were greeted by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez; the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, Charge d'Affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis and his wife Jennifer and Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cabanas. Also in the group were Cuba's top two officials in charge of U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal and Gustavo Machin.

Not in attendance was Cuban President Raul Castro. He frequently greets major world figures upon their arrival at Jose Marti International Airport, but was a no-show Sunday.

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4:55 p.m.

Secretary of State John Kerry with meet with Colombia's largest rebel group while visiting Cuba and check in on progress to end the South American country's half-century conflict.

The meeting with the group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government is scheduled to take place Monday. That's according to a participant in peace talks who requested anonymity because they're not authorized to talk to media.

The U.S.-backed Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have been holding peace talks on the communist island since 2012.

Negotiators from the FARC and Colombia's government have also been invited to watch with President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team.

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4:35 p.m.

Union City, New Jersey, is sometimes known as "Little Havana on the Hudson," and that description fits at El Artesano restaurant. The food is Cuban, the music is Cuban and the debate echoes the divisions of Cuban Americans over President Barack Obama's visit to Havana.

Maggie Orozco says her family had to flee Cuba under Fidel Castro. She says it's hard to understand "why we do this without kicking out the regime, because we are not getting anything back."

Wilfredo Diaz is also from an exile family, but he sees the visit as "a good thing if it helps out the Cuban population." He said it may give people on the island "a chance to see how everything is outside Cuba."

Luis Sierra came to the U.S. as a 13-year-old when his family fled. He says it's a good idea that Obama is there to open doors, but he wants more from Cuba in return. In his words, "We're making it too easy for them right now."

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4:20 p.m.

President Barack Obama is in Cuba for a historic visit. It's a big step in efforts to forge new ties between the United States and its one-time foe.

Air Force One just landed in Havana.

The president is traveling with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, as well as a group of American lawmakers and business leaders.

What's on tap for the rest of the day?

Obama will greet staff at the new U.S. Embassy and then join his family for a tour of Old Havana.

On Monday, Obama will hold talks with Cuban President Raul Castro and also hold an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs.

Obama is the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years.

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3:25 p.m.

Havana's streets are eerily empty ahead of President Barack Obama's visit.

Families usually found strolling along the Malecon seaside promenade or going out for a late lunch or ice cream have been staying at home.

The country's massive internal security apparatus is on full display. Plainclothes security agents stand on virtually every corner along the president's route, and even major intersections where he isn't expected.

Cuba has no modern tradition of large crowds gathering without a government call to assemble. For trips like Pope Francis' September visit to Cuba, the government gave state workers time off and even transportation to spots along his route.

Ordinary Cubans cited traffic and closure warnings and the lack of government calls to assemble as reasons why they were staying home for the president.

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2:35 p.m.

It's not just Cubans who are anxiously anticipating U.S. President Barack Obama's arrival this afternoon.

American travelers in Havana, some of whom booked their trips long before the trip was announced, are tickled to be in town during the historic visit.

Alexandra Perraud is a 25-year-old law school student in Chicago who's spending her spring break studying law at a university in Havana. She says she's "very fortunate to just happen to be here."

Perraud says the Cubans she's met since arriving Friday have all been warm, friendly and eager to talk about Obama, baseball and their excitement about the trip.

She calls this an "extremely exciting moment" and says it's "fabulous" that Cuba and the United States are repairing relations after more than 50 years of acrimony.

Her friend Emily Bitzer is also a law student in Chicago. The 24-year-old says the two countries have much in common and says Obama's visit "will really help sort of get things started with the opening of relations and coming back together."

Perraud and Bitzer are hoping to be able to see Obama at some point, but it won't be at a baseball game between the Tampa Rays and the Cuban national team that he's planning to attend.

They can't make it: They have a class.

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2 p.m.

Counter-protesters and police have broken up an anti-government demonstration in Havana hours before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for his historic visit.

About 300 government backers surrounded about 50 members and backers of the Ladies in White group shouting insults and revolutionary slogans. There was some shoving back and forth.

The women were taken into custody by female police officers and loaded onto buses in an operation that lasted about 10 minutes. In such cases, protesters are typically are detained for a few hours and then released.

The number of protesters, counter-protesters and police appeared to be about the same as in past incidents, which take place in the Cuban capital each Sunday after the Ladies attend Catholic Mass, march silently along 5th Avenue and then join other dissidents to try to march into a residential neighborhood.

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler said before the confrontation she would like to tell Obama that "when you do business with a totalitarian government, you have to set conditions."

She says that she's among a group of dissidents invited to meet with Obama and intends to do so. In the past, Soler declined a similar invitation from Secretary of State John Kerry.

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1:45 p.m.

Nearly 40 U.S. lawmakers and almost a dozen CEOs are joining President Barack Obama for his trip to Cuba.

The White House says eight U.S. senators and 31 members of the House are traveling to Cuba. Most, like Obama, are Democrats. But a few Republicans are also along. They include Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford.

The White House made arrangements for an additional plane to accommodate intense congressional interest in the trip. But a few lawmakers managed to hop a ride on Air Force One, including Flake, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. All are supporters of Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba.

The CEOs of Xerox, Marriott, PayPal and other U.S. companies are also traveling to Cuba. So is an executive from CleBer, which has been approved to open the first U.S. factory in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

While in Cuba, Obama plans to meet with local entrepreneurs to shine a spotlight on Cuba's nascent private-sector economy. A number of U.S. companies are announcing plans to start operations on the island.

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1:35 p.m.

One of the Cuban officials negotiating the normalization of relations with the United States says his country has no fear of being overwhelmed by American business and popular culture as ties between the two Cold War enemies are rebuilt.

Even Cubans critical of their government say they fear that U.S. consumerism will change the languidly paced, family-centered life that many Cubans see as one of the main appeals of life on the island.

Gustavo Machin, Cuba's deputy director of United States affairs, says Cuba's experience as a virtual colony of the United States in the first half of the 20th century has prepared its people to maintain their cultural and economic independence even as American business people, tourists and perhaps consumer goods flood the island.

He tells The Associated Press that he doesn't "think that the Cuban people are going to be bewitched by North American culture." He adds, "We don't fear ties with the United States. I trust the historical, patriotic roots of the Cuban people."