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The Latest in Cuba: Obama Lauds ‘Historic' Chance to Engage Cubans

5:45 p.m.

President Barack Obama says his trip to Cuba is an ``historic opportunity to engage with the Cuban people.''

Obama spoke to a few dozen embassy staff and families at a Havana hotel in his first stop after arriving in Cuba. He says it's wonderful to be in Cuba and is noting that an American president hasn't stepped foot in Cuba in nearly 90 years.

Obama is recalling former President Calvin Coolidge's visit in 1928, when he arrived in a battleship. Obama says it took Coolidge three days to get to Cuba, but only took him three hours.

Obama is singling out three Cubans who have worked at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba for decades: a guard, driver and a worker from the visa section. He says they bring the Cuban and American people together. Before the U.S. reopened its embassy, it had only a U.S. interests sections in Havana.

Obama is thanking people for bringing their children to meet him, saying he hopes that by the time they're adults, they'll ``think it's natural that a U.S. president is visiting Cuba.''

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5:30 p.m.

President Barack Obama's first message to Cubans after landing in Havana came in an unlikely format: Twitter.

``¿Que bolá Cuba?'' Obama wrote _ Spanish for ``how's it going?'' He sent the message from his POTUS account, which the White House has said consists of tweets from the president, not his staff.

Obama says he's just touched down in Cuba and is ``looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.''

Very few Cubans use Twitter. Despite the opening of dozens of public Wi-Fi spots across the country since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro moved to restore relations in 2014, Cuba still has one of the world's lowest rates of Internet use. Wi-Fi costs $2 an hour, close to a tenth of the average Cuban monthly salary. Facebook tends to be more popular here than Twitter.

Obama's events while in Cuba will take place almost entirely in Cuban government sites with tightly controlled guest lists. Some Cubans complained ahead the trip that they will not get to see or interact with the president.

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5:10 p.m.

A host of dignitaries were on hand for President Barack Obama's arrival in Havana with one notable absence.

The Obamas were greeted by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez; the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, Charge d'Affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis and his wife Jennifer and Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cabanas. Also in the group were Cuba's top two officials in charge of U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal and Gustavo Machin.

Not in attendance was Cuban President Raul Castro. He frequently greets major world figures upon their arrival at Jose Marti International Airport, but was a no-show Sunday.

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4:35 p.m.

Union City, New Jersey, is sometimes known as ``Little Havana on the Hudson,'' and that description fits at El Artesano restaurant. The food is Cuban, the music is Cuban and the debate echoes the divisions of Cuban Americans over President Barack Obama's visit to Havana.

Maggie Orozco says her family had to flee Cuba under Fidel Castro. She says it's hard to understand ``why we do this without kicking out the regime, because we are not getting anything back.''

Wilfredo Diaz is also from an exile family, but he sees the visit as ``a good thing if it helps out the Cuban population.'' He said it may give people on the island ``a chance to see how everything is outside Cuba.''

Luis Sierra came to the U.S. as a 13-year-old when his family fled. He says it's a good idea that Obama is there to open doors, but he wants more from Cuba in return. In his words, ``We're making it too easy for them right now.''

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4:20 p.m.

President Barack Obama is in Cuba for a historic visit. It's a big step in efforts to forge new ties between the United States and its one-time foe.

Air Force One just landed in Havana.

The president is traveling with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, as well as a group of American lawmakers and business leaders.

What's on tap for the rest of the day?

Obama will greet staff at the new U.S. Embassy and then join his family for a tour of Old Havana.

On Monday, Obama will hold talks with Cuban President Raul Castro and also hold an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs.

Obama is the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years.

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3:25 p.m.

Havana's streets are eerily empty ahead of President Barack Obama's visit.

Families usually found strolling along the Malecon seaside promenade or going out for a late lunch or ice cream have been staying at home.

The country's massive internal security apparatus is on full display. Plainclothes security agents stand on virtually every corner along the president's route, and even major intersections where he isn't expected.

Cuba has no modern tradition of large crowds gathering without a government call to assemble. For trips like Pope Francis' September visit to Cuba, the government gave state workers time off and even transportation to spots along his route.

Ordinary Cubans cited traffic and closure warnings and the lack of government calls to assemble as reasons why they were staying home for the president.

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2:35 p.m.

It's not just Cubans who are anxiously anticipating U.S. President Barack Obama's arrival this afternoon.

American travelers in Havana, some of whom booked their trips long before the trip was announced, are tickled to be in town during the historic visit.

Alexandra Perraud is a 25-year-old law school student in Chicago who's spending her spring break studying law at a university in Havana. She says she's ``very fortunate to just happen to be here.''

Perraud says the Cubans she's met since arriving Friday have all been warm, friendly and eager to talk about Obama, baseball and their excitement about the trip.

She calls this an ``extremely exciting moment'' and says it's ``fabulous'' that Cuba and the United States are repairing relations after more than 50 years of acrimony.

Her friend Emily Bitzer is also a law student in Chicago. The 24-year-old says the two countries have much in common and says Obama's visit ``will really help sort of get things started with the opening of relations and coming back together.''

Perraud and Bitzer are hoping to be able to see Obama at some point, but it won't be at a baseball game between the Tampa Rays and the Cuban national team that he's planning to attend.

They can't make it: They have a class.

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1:45 p.m.

Nearly 40 U.S. lawmakers and almost a dozen CEOs are joining President Barack Obama for his trip to Cuba.

The White House says eight U.S. senators and 31 members of the House are traveling to Cuba. Most, like Obama, are Democrats. But a few Republicans are also along. They include Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford.

The White House made arrangements for an additional plane to accommodate intense congressional interest in the trip. But a few lawmakers managed to hop a ride on Air Force One, including Flake, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. All are supporters of Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba.

The CEOs of Xerox, Marriott, PayPal and other U.S. companies are also traveling to Cuba. So is an executive from CleBer, which has been approved to open the first U.S. factory in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

While in Cuba, Obama plans to meet with local entrepreneurs to shine a spotlight on Cuba's nascent private-sector economy. A number of U.S. companies are announcing plans to start operations on the island.

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1:35 p.m.

One of the Cuban officials negotiating the normalization of relations with the United States says his country has no fear of being overwhelmed by American business and popular culture as ties between the two Cold War enemies are rebuilt.

Even Cubans critical of their government say they fear that U.S. consumerism will change the languidly paced, family-centered life that many Cubans see as one of the main appeals of life on the island.

Gustavo Machin, Cuba's deputy director of United States affairs, says Cuba's experience as a virtual colony of the United States in the first half of the 20th century has prepared its people to maintain their cultural and economic independence even as American business people, tourists and perhaps consumer goods flood the island.

He tells The Associated Press that he doesn't ``think that the Cuban people are going to be bewitched by North American culture.'' He adds, ``We don't fear ties with the United States. I trust the historical, patriotic roots of the Cuban people.''

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12:50 p.m.

Havana's airport is showing signs of stress as it prepares for Air Force One to arrive.

Obama will land at Jose Marti International Airport on Sunday afternoon. It's the same airport where Cuban President Raul Castro greeted Pope Francis during his historic trip last year.

American journalists and White House officials traveling to Havana on a chartered flight got a firsthand taste of how Obama's high-profile trip is testing Cuba's careworn infrastructure. The flight was kept in a holding pattern in Cuban airspace for much of an hour after the captain was informed the airport had been temporarily shut down.

At the airport, Cuba's main gateway to the skies, cellphone service alternates between spotty and nonfunctional.

Commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba are expected to resume this year following a deal the U.S. and Cuba reached. That includes as many as 20 flights per day to Havana and others to smaller Cuban airports.

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12:40 p.m.

Cuba's minister of foreign trade and investment is calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to extend measures easing the U.S. embargo.

The Obama administration recently announced it was making it easier for U.S. companies to do business with Cuba's budding private sector and also telecommunications concerns.

But Foreign Trade minister Rodrigo Malmierca notes that state-run enterprises still control most of the Cuban economy.

He says U.S. authorities ``have maintained a discriminatory fence in relation to the public sector.''

Malmierca on Sunday acknowledged that Washington has made significant policy changes such as ending a prohibition on Cuban financial transactions passing through U.S. banks.

But he said their true effect will have to be judged in results going forward.

NBC 6's Jackie Nespral and Jawan Strader are in Cuba to broadcast the President's historic visit. You can watch coverage LIVE on NBC 6 and the NBC 6 News and Weather app.
 

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