United States (U.S.) President Barack Obama said “change is going to happen” in Cuba in comments broadcast shortly before talks yesterday in Havana with counterpart, Raul Castro.
Obama, who arrived on the communist island a day earlier with his family, is the first U.S. president to visit in 88 years and comes more than a year after he and Castro surprised the world in December 2014 by announcing that their countries would begin normalising relations.
“Change is going to happen here and I think that Raul Castro understands that,” he said in an interview with ABC News.
Obama acknowledged, however, it was not going to occur “overnight”.
“But what we have seen is the reopening of the embassy and although we still have significant differences around human rights and individual liberties inside of Cuba, we felt that coming now would maximise our ability to prompt more change,” the president said.
But Obama, who along with Castro delivered statements to the press after their midday talks yesterday, admitted: “There’s no doubt that the Cuban government is still a one-party state that’s exerting control and that’s stifling dissent.”
The comments came a day after dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators were arrested during a protest before Obama’s arrival. They were held briefly before being released.
Obama is due to meet Cuban dissidents today, a move Al Jazeera said would have been considered “intolerable” by the government in the past.
“The Cuban government is clearly not happy about it and to make the point, as the president’s plane was coming here, some 50 dissidents were actually arrested,” reported Newman from Havana.
The two countries have moved towards normalising relations after a breakdown following the 1959 communist revolution led by former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Successive U.S. governments have tried to oust the Cuban leadership, most notably during the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.
Obama also revealed yesterday that he plans to announce while in Cuba that tech giant Google has struck a deal to upgrade the paltry internet access on the island.
Newman said the Obamas’ visit had excited Cubans, many hopeful of what the newly re-established ties could bring.
“Many Cubans were actually saying they needed to pinch themselves, that they could not really believe that an American president was finally coming to their country,” she said.
“People want to know what the president is going to say … he will be addressing the Cuban people today (and) this message will be broadcast live on Cuban television.”
The main sticking point for bilateral relations is the devastating trade embargo imposed on Havana in 1962 by former U.S. President John F Kennedy. In the same year, the movement of nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union to Cuba brought the countries close to nuclear war.
Since the restoration of diplomatic relations, the states have signed hotel and telecommunication deals and put into place airline services. But obstacles remain, including the continuing trade embargo that only U.S. Congress can end.