Obama, Castro in historic meeting in Cuba

Havana, March 21

Brushing off decades of distrust, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands today in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution, a remarkable moment for two countries working to put the bitterness of their Cold War-era enmity behind them.

Obama and Castro stood together as a Cuban military band played the national anthems of Cuba and the United States  stunning sounds in a country where resistance to the US has been part of the national mission for decades.

Greeting each other warmly, the two leaders inspected an honour guard before sitting down for a series of meetings.

Whether Obama and Castro could use the meeting, one of the first since Cuba’s 1959 revolution and the only one in Cuba, to further the ambitious diplomatic experiment they started 15 months ago was an open question, infusing Obama’s historic trip to Cuba with uncertainty and tension for both governments.

For Obama, there was no better place than Havana to show that engagement can do more than isolation to bring about change on the communist island.

Yet for the Cubans, the glaring question is whether their own government is ready to prove the ambitious diplomatic opening is more than just talk.

American companies, eager for opportunities in Cuba, were wasting no time. Obama announced that tech giant Google had struck a deal to expand Wi-Fi and broadband Internet on the island 90 miles south of Florida.

Outside the palace in Havana’s sprawling Revolution Square, Obama posed for a photo in front of a giant sculpture of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, creating an indelible image sure to reverberate in Cuba and beyond.

The revolutionary leader was once one of Fidel Castro’s top lieutenants, his face an iconic symbol of Cuba’s revolution. That revolution is reviled by critics of the Castro government.

Paying tribute to another Cuban independence hero, Obama adjusted a wreath at the foot of a 59-foot statue of Jose Marti, calling it “a historic moment.”

“It is a great honour to pay tribute to Jose Marti, who gave his life for independence of his homeland,” Obama wrote in the guestbook. “His passion for liberty, freedom, and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today.”

On his first full day in Cuba, Obama planned an event with US and Cuban entrepreneurs aimed at championing Cuba’s fledgling private sector.

He was to be feted in the evening at a state dinner, an honour illustrating just how far the US and Cuba have come despite their deep ideological differences.