Day One: President Obama and the First Family have Landed in Havana, Cuba

By Press Secretary Josh Earnest

¡Hola desde cuba! Today, Air Force One touched down here in Havana for the first time in history. There’s no question this is a remarkable moment for the relationship between the United States and Cuba, our governments, and our people. It’s also a landmark in the progress we’ve made since President Obama decided to reform the failed, Cold-War era policies of the past and chart a new course that would actually advance American interests and values and help the Cuban people improve their lives.

This trip is also not only professionally but personally meaningful for my Special Assistant and Advisor, Antoinette Rangel — a Cuban-American herself who learned about the country through the stories her abuela, Maria, shared with her growing up. It’s a good illustration of how closely our two countries are linked and how this trip has the potential to change the lives of families in Cuba and the United States. We’re both looking forward to learning more first-hand about Cuban culture and life — and we’re bringing the White House press corps along for the ride.

And just as I do with them on a daily basis, I will be answering your questions about the President’s trip to Cuba too. You can pose your question on Twitter using #AskPressSec, and I’ll answer them on @PressSec from the ground here when I can. But let’s start with a few questions I know many Americans have about this Cuba visit.

Q: Why did the President decide to change U.S. policy toward Cuba? Why now?

For more than fifty years, the United States had been wedded to a policy to isolate and pressure Cuba without seeing any results. Cuba’s political system did not change, and we were not making life better for the Cuban people.

Citing this lack of progress, on December 17, 2014, the President announced our country’s policy toward Cuba was changing course. Since then, we’ve made substantial progress in normalizing relations, and we’ve been pleased to see that the Cuban people overwhelmingly support our new policy, too. The fact the Democrats and Republicans from Congress are joining the President on this trip is a good illustration of the strong bipartisan support for our new opening with Cuba.

We’ve re-opened our embassy in Havana after more than 50 years of shuttered doors. We’ve expanded commercial ties, and made it easier for Americans to travel and do business here. We’ve restored both direct flights and direct mail. In case you missed it, check out President Obama’s letter to 76-year-old woman in Cuba that was carried by the first mail flight in 50 years.

These are significant changes, and a welcome start to the important mission of expanding people-to-people interaction and commercial enterprise. Today, more Americans are visiting Cuba than at any time in the last 50 years — be it Cuban-American families, American students, volunteers, faith leaders, or entrepreneurs. The President’s trip is a big opportunity to advance this progress.

This is the beginning of a new phase, and progress that reflects our interests and values. A better future for the Cuban people will take time. But, it’s a path we’re now on, because the President decided it was time to take those necessary steps toward a better future for citizens in both of our countries.

Q: What will he be doing in Cuba?

It’s a short trip with a lot to get done. My colleague Ben Rhodes, the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, along with the help of his Senior Advisor Bernadette Meehan, have been taking the lead implementing our policy and negotiating with the Cuban government. They have helpfully laid out the marquee events the President has scheduled.

Here are some highlights:

On Sunday, he’s taking a walking tour of Old Havana where he’ll be met by Carinal Ortega, the Latin Rite Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Havana and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and tour a few places that illustrate the history and cultural significance of this beautiful city.

On Monday, he’ll lay a wreath at the Jose Marti Memorial and participate in a discussion about entrepreneurship and opportunity with cuentapropistas, or Cuban entrepreneurs. He’ll also head to the Revolutionary Palace to meet with President Raúl Castro to discuss what they can do together to make it easier to trade and easier for Cubans to access the Internet and start their own businesses.

On Tuesday, the First Family will attend a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National team at the LatinoAmerican Stadium. It’s the first time an MLB team has played in Cuba since 1999, and the Tampa Bay Rays won the lottery pick among the teams who wanted to come down and play. One things for sure, if the Royals come down here next, I’m coming with them!

Q: What does the President hope to see happen in Cuba after his visit?

For the President, this change in policy and this historic visit come down to his belief that the U.S. can help make a difference for the Cuban people. By changing the way Americans engage with Cubans, we can foster the hope they have for a future of their own making. The President’s policies are geared toward providing opportunity to the Cuban people, rather than isolating them as we had in the past.

Of course, there are real differences between our political and economic systems. We have difficult histories that have prevented progress until now. But, on this historic trip, the President hopes to share his vision for what Americans and Cubans can do together to ensure a future for Cuba that reflects more freedom and opportunity for its people. That’s not just good for Cuba. It’s good for America — especially the millions of Americans that have deep and enduring ties to Cuba.

So follow along here and follow me, @PressSec, on Twitter as we explore Cuba and the future we can build together. This will be a trip to remember.