Obama meets Castro after historic arrival in Cuba

By Kevin Liptak, CNN White House Producer | 3/21/2016, 11:27 a.m.
A day after making a historic arrival in Cuba, President Barack Obama met Monday with the leader of the authoritarian ...
A day after making an historic arrival in Cuba, President Barack Obama met with lCuban leader Raul Castro as part of his efforts to elicit change on the island. POOL photo

HAVANA (CNN) -- A day after making a historic arrival in Cuba, President Barack Obama met Monday with the leader of the authoritarian regime here as part of his efforts to elicit change on the island.

Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro shook hands at the Palace of the Revolution in Old Havana before their sit-down, the third time the pair have met for bilateral talks since the resumption of diplomatic relations in 2014. It was unclear whether the leaders would later take questions from the press.

Obama started his morning laying a wreath by the Jose Marti memorial, a massive monument to the Cuban revolutionary leader where a Cuban military band played the "Star Spangled Banner," another in a series of previously unthinkable moments that marks this week's visit.

In an elaborate welcome ceremony, Obama and Castro met with smiles and brief conversation before moving down long hallways lined with Cuban troops. Obama was overheard telling the Cuban leader he enjoyed his tour of Havana Sunday night along with his family.

He also told Castro he had a "great" dinner at a "paladar" -- one of hundreds of privately run restaurants that only recently became permissible in the state-run economy. Those types of businesses, along with new investments from American firms, give U.S. officials hope that Cuba is on a path to open its economy after decades of isolation.

The meeting provides Obama and his aides another reality check on their mission to extract reforms from Castro. Until this point, there have been few signs that the government here is willing to work as quickly as the Obama administration hoped in opening the state-run economy and improving human rights.

"Change is going to happen here and I think that Raul Castro understands that," Obama said in an interview with ABC News taped Sunday night.

"Our intention has been to get the ball rolling, knowing that change wasn't going to happen overnight," Obama said. "Although we still have significant differences around human rights and individual liberties inside of Cuba, we felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change."

The vast differences between the Obama administration and the Castro regime were no less evident Sunday as Havana hurried to prepare for the U.S. president's arrival. As Obama was en route, scores of anti-Castro dissidents from the group Ladies in White were arrested and detained after their weekly protest in Havana. CNN witnessed dozens of protesters being driven from the site in buses.

The group consists largely of women who have been arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against the government here.

Jose Daniel Ferrer, a Cuban dissident who was imprisoned for eight years beginning in 2008, said Obama could harness the attention from his trip to make a loud demand for political reform, citing President Ronald Reagan's demand in 1987 for the Soviet Union to "tear down this wall."

But Ferrer, speaking with CNN in his home Sunday, conceded that even incremental change is beneficial to the island's politically oppressed citizenry.