HAVANA (AP) — Brushing off decades of distrust, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands Monday 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 U.S. has been part of the national mission for decades. Greeting each other warmly, the two leaders inspected an honor 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 honor 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 U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs aimed at championing Cuba's fledgling private sector. He was to be feted in the evening at a state dinner, an honor illustrating just how far the U.S. and Cuba have come despite their deep ideological differences.
The long-awaited meeting between Obama and Castro was one of the most scrutinized moments of Obama's 2½-day trip to Cuba, the first while in office by a U.S. president in nearly 90 years. The White House's attempts to get Castro to agree to a joint news conference appeared unsuccessful, and it was unclear whether they'd answer any questions.
As Obama began his trip, he said that with less than a year left in office, "the time is right."
Since succeeding his brother Fidel in 2008, Castro has orchestrated economic and social reforms with broad-based impact, though to many Cubans and foreigners they appear slow to materialize. Not only are hundreds of thousands of Cubans now able to pursue free enterprise, but restrictions on cellphones and Internet have been eased and citizens feel more comfortable discussing Cuba's problems.
Yet Castro has given little ground when it comes to changing Cuba's single-party system or easing strict limits on media, assembly and political dissent. His government has also repeatedly chided Obama for saying he wanted to empower Cubans.
None of that has dissuaded Obama, who insists that any intransigence by Cuba's government only proves why Cubans will be better off when they're intimately exposed to American values.
"We felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change," Obama told ABC News. "Particularly because this has been welcomed by the Cuban people with enormous popularity."
To that end, Obama came to Havana hoping his visit would spur Castro to offer gestures of good faith and meaningful change, which would undermine critics who accuse Obama of kowtowing to an authoritarian government. Though Cuba approved U.S. hotel chains Starwood and Marriott to operate here and moved to lift fees on converting U.S. dollars, those steps pale in comparison to sweeping changes Obama has enacted to lift decades-old U.S. restrictions.