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History as Obama visits Cuba

By AP Reporters

President Barack Obama stepped off Air Force One and into the history books as he landed for an extraordinary visit to Cuba yesterday.

The outgoing President is eager to push decades of acrimony deeper into the past and forge irreversible ties with America's former adversary.

Mr Obama's whirlwind trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries.

While deep differences persist, the economic and political relationship has changed rapidly in the 15 months since the leaders vowed a new beginning.

Wielding an umbrella on a rainy Havana afternoon, the President was greeted by top Cuban officials, including Cuba's foreign minister and US ambassador. He was joined by First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, with dozens of US politicians and business leaders arriving separately for Mr Obama's visit.

His first stop was to be the new US Embassy in Havana, which was opened amid great fanfare last year. After greeting embassy staff, Mr Obama and his family were to tour Old Havana by foot, including Havana Cathedral.

For more than 50 years Cuba was an unimaginable destination for a US President, as well as most American citizens. The US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro's revolution sparked fears of communism spreading to the Western Hemisphere. Domestic politics in both countries contributed to the continued estrangement well after the Cold War ended.

The last visit to Cuba by a US President came in 1928, when Calvin Coolidge arrived on the island in a battleship.

Mr Obama's visit was highly anticipated in Cuba, where workers furiously cleaned up the streets in Old Havana and gave buildings a fresh coat of paint. American flags were raised alongside the Cuban colours in parts of the capital, an improbable image for those who have lived through a half-century of bitterness between the two countries.

The President's schedule includes official meetings with Raul Castro and an event with US and Cuban entrepreneurs. But much of Mr Obama's visit was about appealing directly to the Cuban people and celebrating the island's vibrant culture.

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