Obama Meets With Cuban Leader Raul Castro

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro hold their first meeting on the second day of Obama's visit to Cuba, Havana, March 21. Carlos Barria/Reuters

President Barack Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro on Monday morning during the first visit of a sitting president to the country in nearly 90 years.

On the second day of his three-day visit to the Caribbean island, Obama met with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, the Cuban capital. The leaders were expected to discuss improving human rights in the country and economic reforms.

Obama repeatedly referred to his visit as "historic" and during his opening speech in Cuba on Sunday said it's an opportunity to "engage directly with the Cuban people and to forge new agreements and commercial deals, to build new ties between our two peoples." The visit is worthy of its hyperbolic headlines, says John Caulfield, former chief of mission for the U.S. interests section in Havana.

"The president of the United States arriving in Cuba with all this panoply of his entourage and all the work that the Cuban government has done to receive him, for the ordinary Cuban on the street it's as if aliens from another planet have landed there," Caulfield tells Newsweek.

"This is totally unimaginable for Cubans."

Hat tip to Reuters for getting this brilliant photo of #AirForceOne coming into #Cuba for @POTUS visit pic.twitter.com/76juQuBmAq

— Jon Sopel (@BBCJonSopel) March 21, 2016

The U.S. announced its re-opening of relations with Cuba in December 2014, ending a Cold War stalemate that had been in place since 1959. The U.S. embassy in Havana reopened last August and a U.S. flag flew at the site for the first time in 54 years. Obama's visit is the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years; Calvin Coolidge was the last to visit Cuba.

Obama's schedule on Monday includes a wreath-laying and tour of the memorial for Jose Marti, a Cuban poet and national hero; a number of meetings with Castro—but not with his brother, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro; and a state dinner. On his first night in Cuba, the president, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, toured Old Havana under the cover of umbrellas.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is also in Cuba and met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on Monday morning.

While some Cuban-Americans have mixed feelings about the president's trip, the significance and meaning of the visit splits down a generational divide, says Caulfield.

"The longer your separation from Cuba, the harsher your feelings are. The analogy is the 'bad divorce,'" says Caulfield.

"For next generation and subsequent generation, there's less of an emotional feel to this. Right now, the older generation finds this inconceivable that the president of the United States would be meeting with Raul Castro," he says. "Others think, well, time moves on, how long are the Castros going to be on the planet? We look to the future, and I think that's going to be the approach of Obama."

Since the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba was announced in late 2014, business opportunities have opened up. Direct flights between the two countries have been reinstated and last week the U.S. hotel company Starwood announced it will manage two hotels in Havana, making it the first U.S. company to sign a deal with the country since 1959. According to NBC News, Starwood received special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department to go through with the deal.

"Cuba is going to change, that is inevitable. The revolutionary leadership is going to die, they're going to pass. What the U.S. is doing is trying to put ourselves in a position to make that transition to the future as easy and as positive for Cuba as possible," says Caulfield.

"That's what this visit and this change in policy is about."