Barack Obama Cuba.jpg
Photograph: EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

US President Barack Obama met with US embassy employees in Havana and took a walking tour of historic old Havana after arriving Sunday in Cuba to start a three-day visit that culminates a process of a rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.

Air Force One touched down at 4:18 pm (2018 GMT) in Havana, and before Obama got off the plane he sent a message on Twitter.

"Que bolá Cuba?" (What's up, Cuba?) Obama said on Twitter. "Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people."

He and his family then travel from the airport into the city, where he addressed embassy staff.

"Having a US embassy means we're more effectively able to advance our values, our interests and understand more effectively" the Cuban people's concerns, he said, adding this visit is "only a very first step" in the new relationship with Cuba.

Because of rainy weather Obama addressed the US diplomats not at the embassy but at the Melia Habana Hotel.

"This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity," the US president said. "Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship; it took him three days to get here. It only took me three hours," Obama added, referring to the only other sitting US president who has ever visited Cuba.

He and his family later arrived at Havana Cathedral to large crowds that began cheering as his motorcade reached the square. He paused to shake some hands and waved several times as he made his way to the door of the white stone cathedral, where he was to meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

The trip comes in the final year of Obama's eight years in office and with his hopes that it will be one of the crowning achievements of his foreign policy.

Obama is expected to be feted during his stay in the Caribbean island nation. But just prior to his arrival there was a reminder of the human rights situation there - one of the main sticking points to a further reduction in tensions - when dozens of dissidents were arrested, several opposition figures told dpa.

"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, said.

Decades of hostility between neighbours on opposite sides of the political spectrum have dissipated since Obama and Raul Castro announced their agreement in late 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.

Meanwhile, his brother 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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