President Obama and his family arrived in Cuba on Sunday for a historic three-day visit filled with symbolism, but with few expectations that the president’s legacy-building trip will improve human rights for Cubans under the repressive regime of the Castro brothers.
Air Force One landed in light rain at Jose Marti International Airport near Havana late Sunday afternoon, making Mr. Obama the first sitting U.S. president to set foot on sovereign Cuban soil since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
After a stop at the U.S. Embassy, the Obamas visited the Cathedral in Old Havana and met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop who worked with Pope Francis to help forge the agreement in December 2014 to restore diplomatic relations between the Cold War adversaries.
In brief remarks to embassy staff, Mr. Obama said his trip is “a historic visit and a historic opportunity.”
Hours before Mr. Obama arrived, Cuban authorities arrested more than 50 dissidents known as “Ladies in White” who were marching to demand improved human rights and religious freedom. They were rounded up in buses and police cars.
Mr. Obama will meet Monday with Cuban President Raul Castro, but isn’t expected to see his brother Fidel, the 89-year-old communist revolutionary who is in poor health.
During the trip, Mr. Obama also will hold a private meeting with dissidents, deliver a speech to the Cuban people, pay homage to the Catholic Church for helping to broker the thaw in relations, attend a state dinner in his honor and watch a baseball game before departing late Tuesday for Argentina.
Traveling with the president are first lady Michelle Obama, their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and Mrs. Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson. Flying with the Obamas on Air Force One were Rachel and Sharon Robinson, the widow and daughter of the late baseball legend Jackie Robinson; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat; Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois; and Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.
Among the dignitaries greeting Mr. Obama at the airport was Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla.
While the White House said Mr. Obama plans to promote democracy and human rights, his primary goal is to emphasize the economic potential of restoring ties between the U.S. and Cuba.
A contingent of U.S. business leaders is accompanying the president, and the Starwood hotel chain — the target of a Chinese takeover bid — announced Saturday that it had reached a multimillion-dollar deal to renovate three hotels in Cuba, including a property owned by the Cuban military.
White House advisers say the president will issue forceful calls for the Cuban government to make democratic reforms and improve human rights. The foreign minister rebuffed that sentiment and said Mr. Obama cannot empower Cubans.
“The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago,” Mr. Rodriguez said, referring to the 1959 communist revolution in which Fidel Castro seized power and aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union.
He said if Mr. Obama is focused on empowering Cubans, “something must be going wrong in U.S. democracy.”
The president has eased travel and trade restrictions on Cuba through executive branch action but hasn’t persuaded Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo.
Critics and human rights groups say the Cuban regime has little incentive to change and that conditions on the island have deteriorated since Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro resumed diplomatic ties.
“Fifteen months into the president’s new policy, conditions on the island have worsened drastically,” said Ana Quintana, an analyst on Latin America at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “This year alone, there have been over 2,500 politically motivated arrests, which is 30 percent of [last year’s] total.”
Although the government has released some political prisoners, she said, “many of them have been rearrested.”
The White House hasn’t said which political dissidents Mr. Obama plans to meet with but insisted that the Cuban government isn’t interfering.
“The list of people invited to meet with the president in Cuba is non-negotiable,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “The White House and the president will be determining who he meets with. The president is going to move forward and host meetings and have a conversation about human rights with the people that he chooses to meet with.”
Religious persecution is rampant. Ms. Quintana said Cuba had more than 2,300 cases of religious persecution last year, compared with 220 in 2014. About 100 Cuban churches were demolished last year.
The religious freedom charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide said in a report this year that the dramatic crackdown on religion in Cuba has been driven by government aggression, with 2,000 Assemblies of God churches declared illegal.
“Week after week, state security agents physically and violently dragged scores of women away from Sunday morning services,” the report said. “Most were arbitrarily detained until after the conclusion of religious services.”
Christian Solidarity Worldwide said there are continued reports of government agents harassing and arresting the “Damas de Blanco,” Spanish for “Ladies in White,” many of whom are the wives and other female relatives of former and current political prisoners, as they attend Mass on Sundays dressed in white to symbolize peace.
Another point of contention is Cuba’s status as a haven for U.S. fugitives. The Department of Justice estimates that more than 50 people are avoiding prosecution on the island for various crimes.
“To this day, this is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and to fugitives,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the president will bring up the need for reform during his visit.”
Among the most notorious fugitives is former Black Panther JoAnne Chesimard, who is on the New Jersey State Police “most wanted” list for escape. She was serving a life prison sentence for the killing of a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973, but escaped in 1979 and made her way to Cuba, where Fidel Castro granted her asylum.
New Jersey State Police Col. Rick Fuentes posted a message to Facebook ahead of Mr. Obama’s trip urging Americans to beware of Chesimard, now 68, and three other fugitives who he said are responsible for the deaths of a combined 17 police officers, five American civilians and two U.S. servicemen, as well as a total of 159 bombings.
“Our relationship with Cuba is changing and as a matter of public safety I believe that all those considering travel to Cuba need to be aware that four dangerous fugitive terrorists are living free and protected on the island,” Col. Fuentes said.
Mr. Earnest said U.S. fugitives in Cuba are “certainly a priority” for the administration.
“We have raised our concerns with the Cuban government repeatedly, that there are fugitives from American justice, that have sought safe haven in Cuba,” he said. “We are seeking their return. There has already been a law enforcement dialogue established between our two countries to seek the return of [Chesimard and a second fugitive] so they can be brought to justice.”
The culmination of Mr. Obama’s trip will be a speech to the Cuban people Tuesday morning in a historic theater in Havana. The White House said Friday that it finally received assurances from the Cuban government that Mr. Obama’s address would be broadcast on TV to the rest of the country.
White House National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice said Mr. Obama will deliver a simple message: “We believe the Cuban people, like people everywhere, are best served by genuine democracy, when they are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas and practice their faith.”
Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said the speech will be “an opportunity for the president to engage the Cuban people with his vision for the future.”
“We recognize this speech is very important to the Cuban people — as important as anything he is doing while he is there,” Mr. Rhodes said. “He will want to acknowledge the complicated history between our two countries.”
But Mr. Obama will not seek to “dictate outcomes” for Cuba, he said.
“He will make clear that’s for the Cuban people to decide,” Mr. Rhodes said. “We believe that by opening up space for exchange, dialogue, connectivity, commercial opening, entrepreneurship, exchanges with civil society, that will help empower the Cuban people to live better lives.”
Ms. Quintana scoffed at the administration’s “false assumption that commercial and diplomatic engagement alone is going to spur the regime to change.”
“For over half a century, they’ve never changed their ways,” she said. “Virtually every single commercial opening that’s been done goes to line the pockets of the government in Havana.”