US President Barack Obama arrived Sunday in Havana to start a three-day visit to Cuba, a historic trip culminating a process of a rapprochement that began more than a year ago.

Air Force One touched down at 4:18 pm (2018 GMT) in Havana, where he will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro on further advancing the reconstruction of relations between the two countries.

Obama is accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, their daughters and Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson. The only other sitting US president who has ever visited Cuba, Calvin Coolidge, travelled there by ship in 1928.

Obama is expected to be feted during his stay in the Caribbean island nation. But he also will witness a city lined with buildings in an ill state of repair in Havana and streets full of ancient cars.

Just prior to the arrival of the Obama family, dozens of dissidents were arrested in Havana. Police intervened during a demonstration in a park and took away many activists, several opposition figures told dpa.

Similar detentions occurred just prior to the Pope's visit in September. In most cases the activists are released after a few hours, but there was concern the people detained on Sunday could be kept until Obama departs on Tuesday.

"There is a climate of political repression in connection with the visit of President Obama," Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the banned Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told dpa.

Many dissidents were warned not to leave their homes while Obama is in Havana.

Decades of hostility between neighbours on opposite sides of the political spectrum began to dissipate after Obama and Raul Castro agreed in December 2014 to end what effectively had become a stalemate in relations dating back to the dawn of the Cold War.

Diplomatic ties were restored in July, and little by little other hindrances to cooperation have been dropped. Last week the United States loosened some travel restrictions on Cuba, including allowing US citizens to visit the country for "people-to-people" educational trips, and eased restrictions on banking services.

Direct postal service also recently restarted, eliminating the need for letters and parcels to be sent via third countries.

Obama's stay will include a meeting with Raul Castro, but not with his older brother, Fidel, the 89-year-old revolutionary, who ruled the communist island for decades after the revolution and consistently express hostility toward the US, which implemented an embargo against Cuba in 1961.

Raul Castro has called for the complete lifting of a trade embargo and a return of Guantanamo Bay, a US military base on the eastern tip of Cuba under US control since 1903.

While Obama has signalled that the days of mutual hostility are over, he also plans to press Cuba on the critical human rights situation in the country, which remains a major sticking point in bilateral relations.

For his part, Fidel Castro sent his own message on Sunday when a photo of him speaking with Venezuelan socialist President Nicolas Maduro was published on the cover of the newspaper Juventud Rebelde. He has previously expressed scepticism over the approach his brother has taken toward the US.

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