First US president in Cuba in 88 years, Obama says ‘change going to happen’

First US president in Cuba in 88 years, Obama says ‘change going to happen’

First US president in Cuba in 88 years, Obama says ‘change going to happen’

US President Barack Obama waves upon his arrival at Jose Marti international airport in Havana on March 20, 2016. AFP photo

Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama said he believes “change is going to happen” in Cuba, in comments broadcast shortly ahead of rare talks March 21 in Havana with counterpart Raul Castro, while on a historic three-day trip.

Obama, who arrived on the communist island March 20 with his family, is the first U.S. president to visit Cuba 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 normalizing relations.

“Change is going to happen here and I think that Raul Castro understands that,” he told ABC in the Cuban capital, acknowledging it was not going to occur “overnight,” AFP reported.

“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 maximize our ability to prompt more change.” 

But Obama, who along with Castro was scheduled to deliver statements to the press after their midday talks March 21, admitted: “There’s no doubt that the Cuban government is still a one-party state that’s exerting control and that’s stifling dissent.” 

Obama also revealed he plans to announce while in Cuba that Google has struck a deal to upgrade the paltry Internet access on the island.

“One of the things that we’ll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi and broadband access on the island,” Obama told ABC News in an interview that aired on Monday.

Obama’s historic visit to Cuba opened a new chapter in U.S. engagement with the island’s Communist government after decades of hostility between the former Cold War foes.

“It’s a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people,” Obama told staff at the newly reopened U.S. Embassy who were gathered at a hotel, his first stop after arriving in the afternoon of March 20. 

Groups of Cubans watched the motorcade from balconies and backyards as Obama was driven downtown, where a small crowd of Cubans braved a tropical downpour and tight security. They chanted: “Viva Obama, Viva Fidel,” as the president and his family left after eating dinner in a rundown neighborhood.

On March 20, one bystander shouted: “Down with the blockade,” in reference to the U.S. embargo in place for 54 years that remains the top irritant for Cubans. Obama, who responded to the shout by raising his right hand, has asked Congress to rescind the embargo but has been blocked by the Republican leadership.

The trip makes Obama the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship in 1928 and may help chip away at barriers to U.S.-Cuba trade and travel.