HAVANA — The wheels of Air Force One touched down at Jose Marti International Airport for the first time ever at 4:19 p.m. Sunday, kicking off a history-making presidential visit and breaking decades of tense relations with communist Cuba.
It's the same single-runway airport the CIA once bombed in the 1960s, and whose broken-down Russian-built airplanes and colorful, antiquated terminals give testimony to the impact of 50 years of U.S. sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
But as he descended the stairway under an umbrella, President Obama was greeted warmly on the tarmac by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who presented First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters with flowers. A small crowd gathered on the reviewing stand, but their cheers were subdued by the 84-degree drizzle.
President Obama's three-day visit will focus on deepening long-neglected commercial ties between the United States and Cuba, but also drawing a harder line on human rights abuses by the Castro government. Just hours before his arrival, Cuban authorities arrested more than 50 human rights activists at the weekly Ladies in White protest outside Havana.
But first, Obama headed to a Havana hotel, where he met with American diplomats at the newly reopened embassy who have been working to normalize relations with Cuba since Pope Francis mediated a thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations in 2014.
"Having a U.S. embassy means we're more effectively able to advance our values, our interests and understand more effectively" the Cuban people's concerns," Obama told them. "This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity."
Then, Obama and the entire first family — the first lady, daughters Sasha and Malia and mother-in-law Marian Robinson — did some sight-seeing in heavier rain in Old Havana, including a visit to the Cathedral that is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba and where Pope Francis celebrated Mass last year.
There, Obama met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who celebrated Palm Sunday Mass there Sunday morning after a procession through Old Havana.
Amid chants of "USA! USA!" Obama and his family walked to a local museum, which had prominently displayed an 1963 painting of Abraham Lincoln for the occasion. Then, the first family went to dinner at a highly rated paladar, a privately run restaraunt.
On Monday, Obama will meet one-on-one with Cuban President Raul Castro, the brother of the retired revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Tuesday, Obama meets with dissidents and addresses the Cuban people directly in speech to be televised across the island. Finally, he'll engage in baseball diplomacy, taking in an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban nationals before departing for Argentina Tuesday afternoon.
Obama arrived with a delegation so large it needed multiple planes. A White House press charter arrived Saturday, and a support plane helped bring 11 CEOs and 39 members of Congress Sunday. Also on Air Force One: The family of Jackie Robinson, the legendary baseball player who broke baseball's color line in 1947.
Obama is the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge arrived by battleship in 1928 to address the Pan-American Conference — a piece of history that Obama acknowledged to embassy staff..
"It took him three days to get here," Obama said. "It only took me three hours."
Gregory Korte, USA TODAY