U.S. President Barack Obama talks to tourists and Cubans at his arrival to the Havana Cathedral, on March 20. On Sunday, Obama became the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba, touching down in Havana for a landmark trip aimed at ending decades of Cold War animosity.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks to tourists and Cubans at his arrival to the Havana Cathedral, on March 20. On Sunday, Obama became the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba, touching down in Havana for a landmark trip aimed at ending decades of Cold War animosity.

President Obama arrived in Cuba yesterday. Diane talks with NPR’s Scott Horsley who is traveling with the President.


  • Scott Horsley White House correspondent, NPR


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Today, all but one presidential candidate is scheduled to speak at the annual AIPAC conference put on by the pro Israel group. It will be the latest opportunity for the candidates to talk about some of their policy views. Here to talk about the presidential candidates and their positions on international affairs, Damian Paletta of The Wall Street Journal, Kim Ghattas of the BBC, James Kitfield, contributing editor of The National Journal and Elizabeth Saunders of the George Washington University.

  • 10:07:36

    MS. DIANE REHMBut first, let's check in with NPR's Scott Horsley. He's in Havana, Cuba with President Obama. And Scott, I wonder if you can share with us how are Cubans reacting to this visit from the U.S. president in 88 years.

  • 10:07:57

    MR. SCOTT HORSLEYDiane, there's a lot of excitement here in Cuba. People are certainly pleased to have the president here after so many decades of isolation. I've been talking to some ordinary Cubans who are singing the praises of this president and expressing a lot of warm feelings for the Obama family. At the same time, public displays of affection have been somewhat limited by the Castro government. There were not throngs of people waving to the motorcade, for example, when the president drove into Havana from there airport as there were when Pope Francis visited last fall.

  • 10:08:30

    MR. SCOTT HORSLEYCubans don't typically throng unless the government tells them to throng and they haven't been told that in this case. The government-run newspaper has given the president's trips smaller billing than the baseball game tomorrow between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. Certainly, there were some well-wishers greeting the first family when they went out for dinner in Havana last night, but for the most part, Cubans are cheering this visit quietly.

  • 10:08:53

    REHMTell me about the arrests of protesters before President Obama's arrival. How much has the government clamped down?

  • 10:09:06

    HORSLEYThis is still very much an authoritarian government and the handshakes and the history have not changed that. The president insists he will be meeting with Cuban dissidents while he's here, something he often does when he travels around the world, meeting with opposition force. The Cuban government wants critics to think twice, though, about taking part in a meeting like that so there have been reports of dissidents being harassed and detained.

  • 10:09:31

    HORSLEYYesterday, there was an anti-Castro demonstration by the Ladies in White just as there is every Sunday here in Havana and just about every Sunday that demonstration is shut down by the government. That happened yesterday. More than 50 protesters were rounded up just hours before the president got here. It's a reminder, if anyone needs one, that Cuba is still a long way from meaningful political reform.

  • 10:09:53

    REHMSo how far do you think the president will go in addressing the issue of human rights when he speaks not only to Raul Castro but when he makes his speech to the public?

  • 10:10:12

    HORSLEYYeah, the White House is adamant that President Obama will raise the issue of human rights abuses when he meets today with President Castro and I'm confident we'll also hear him discuss it tomorrow when he gives that televised address to the whole of the Cuban public. A lot of people in America will also be listening to that speech so I don't think there's any doubt it will include a reference to human rights.

  • 10:10:34

    HORSLEYWhat's also clear, though, is this administration is not waiting for the Castro government to improve its human rights record before relaxing U.S. restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba. In fact, the Obama administration sees the relaxed rules not as reward for good behavior by the Cuban government, but rather as a tool. The president and his aides are convinced that, over time, more contact and commerce with the United States will bring about the kind of reform that a half century of isolation did not.

  • 10:11:06

    REHMWhat about the issue of Guantanamo? To what extent would that be discussed between President Obama and President Castro?

  • 10:11:22

    HORSLEYI wouldn't be surprised of President Castro raises that issue. It is a thorn in the side of the Cuban government. They have long resisted that U.S. presence on the edge of their island. I think from the administration side, though, it's not going to be a major issue and the White House has telegraphed pretty definitively that we should not expect any developments with regard to the naval base on Guantanamo Bay.

  • 10:11:50

    REHMBut, of course, the Cubans want Guantanamo back.

  • 10:11:57

    HORSLEYOh, of course, they do. And, you know, every year, the United States government sends a check to the Cuban government as a rental payment for that and it's never cashed because the Cubans see it as a inappropriate imperial presence on their island. The U.S. government doesn't think of it that way and, again, we're told pretty clearly by the White House not to expect any give from the president on that.

  • 10:12:25

    REHMHow far do you expect President Obama to go in, pushing Raul Castro on the issue of both the economy and the political system there in Cuba?

  • 10:12:43

    HORSLEYYou know I think there will be encouragement from President Obama on that, but I don't think he's looking for any concrete commitments from the Castro government out of this meeting. As one expert says, this is not a quid pro quo in the administration's eyes. This is about the United States lifting restrictions that have limited American travelers and American business people for decades now. Over the last 15 months since this diplomatic thaw was first announced, the administration, through the commerce and treasury departments, have been whittling away at those restrictions.

  • 10:13:18

    HORSLEYThey would certainly like to see corresponding movement by the Cuban government, but both in opening up the economy and in opening up the political system. But I don't think they're looking for that to happen at this meeting today.

  • 10:13:29

    REHMSo it's interesting. What you're saying is that the president will talk about what is hoped for, but will not expect anything in return?

  • 10:13:45

    HORSLEYNot in immediate terms. Not as a result, a tangible deliverable from this meeting today. This whole overture from the Obama administration has been about creating an environment that they think will be more conducive to long term change in Cuba, but, you know, this is an authoritarian government that's been in place for more than half a century. It's not going to give way overnight. Certainly, the administration, though, doesn't think Cuba's closed political system, it's closed economy can survive over the long term once it's exposed to greater contact and communication with the United States.

  • 10:14:23

    HORSLEYAnd that's a big part of the agenda here. The other thing is that the Cuban policy, the U.S. policy towards Cuba has long been an irritant to other countries in the hemisphere. So even if there's not great movement from Cuba, the administration sees dividends in improved relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere who, for years, had been urging the American government to drop its policy of trying to isolate Cuba.

  • 10:14:51

    REHMSo has anyone seen a sneak preview of what the president will be saying tomorrow?

  • 10:15:00

    HORSLEYI have not seen a text of his remarks, but I think it's safe to say the theme of this speech tomorrow, like many others this president has given is that we cannot forget our history, but we shouldn't be trapped by it. For more than a half a century, the story of U.S./Cuba relations has been a story of hostility and suspicion. There are monuments to that history all over Havana. As you walk and drive around this capital city, you see all sorts of memorials to the friction and the tension between the U.S. and Cuba.

  • 10:15:31

    HORSLEYIn just a few minutes, though, the president will be laying a wreath at the monument to Jose Marti, a figure who is revered in both the United States and Cuba, the intellectual father of Cuban independence. And tomorrow, I think we're going to hear this president talk about his vision for a new chapter in U.S. ties to this island that is so close to the United States and yet, has been so isolated for so long.

  • 10:15:53

    REHMScott, is there any talk among those in high place in Cuba as to who might replace Raul Castro? Both he and his brother, Fidel, are getting up there.

  • 10:16:14

    HORSLEYThat's right. You could argue that Raul Castro is not much less of a short timer than President Obama is. And, obviously, that's something that the United States will be watching very closely as a signal of what that next chapter is likely to look like. Is it going to be, you know, another Castro in all but name or will the next leader of Cuba really be someone who is open to a new way of doing business.

  • 10:16:40

    REHMAnd finally, I'm absolutely fascinated to know that the Rolling Stones are going to be there later this week. What does that signify?

  • 10:16:54

    HORSLEYThere are a lot of members of the press corps here who would like to be here for the concert. Maybe the president himself would like to be, as well. But, of course, President Obama is going to be departing Havana before Mick Jagger and company take the stage. You can't always get what you want.

  • 10:17:10

    REHMBut is their presence there an indication of a different attitude on the part of the Cuban leaders?

  • 10:17:23

    HORSLEYYou know, music is one way that Cuba has always had, I think, a greater opening than other parts of the culture and the economy and the government here. I think music has long been kind of a window onto the Cuban spirit that is not as subject to the authoritarian regime.

  • 10:17:43

    REHMScott Horsley, he's White House correspondent for NPR. He joined us from Havana, Cuba. Thank you, Scott, and I'll look forward to talking with you when you come home.

  • 10:17:59

    HORSLEYIt's a pleasure to be with you from Cuba.

  • 10:18:00

    REHMThank you. And short break. We'll be right back.

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