Obama arrives in Cuba; hopes visit will usher in change

— President Barack Obama touched down in Cuba on Sunday, definitively ending a half-century of estrangement in a dramatic personal demonstration of his core foreign policy principle of engaging America’s enemies.

It’s a shift that the change-minded president hopes will nudge the Communist government here to grant more freedoms to its people and open new economic channels for American businesses. The President and his allies also hope a successful détente will offer something bigger: a lasting example of diplomacy’s power in dealing with longtime foes.

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President Barack Obama lands in Cuba

President Barack Obama and the first family touched down in Havana, Cuba, reopening diplomatic ties with the island nation after nearly 90 years of estrangement.

Just before Obama stepped from Air Force One — carrying an umbrella as a persistent rain fell on the tarmac — he sent a message to Cubans on a platform that until recently would have been unheard of in the repressive regime.

“¿Que bolá Cuba?” he wrote on Twitter, using an informal Cuban greeting. “Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.”

On Sunday, his interactions with everyday Cubans were carefully calibrated. He toured the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, greeting Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a key proponent of improving ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Crowds had gathered in the faded colonial streets of Old Havana to glimpse Obama and his family as they passed through on foot.

Later in the evening, Obama dined 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 finally opening its economy after decades of isolation.

But he final verdict on Obama’s Cuba policy has yet to be rendered. Those economic changes have been slow, and human rights are still blatantly ignored in parts of the island.

That was illustrated Sunday, when 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.

Jose Daniel Ferrer, a Cuban dissident who was imprisoned for eight years beginning in 2008, said Obama could act like President Ronald Reagan, demanding immediate improvements in human rights just as Reagan demanded the Soviet Union “tear down this wall.”

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

“Obama’s visit is good for the people and good for the cause,” he said. Ferrer is among the dissidents meeting Obama on Tuesday.

Challenges aside, the sight of Air Force One landing at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport in the early evening on Sunday nonetheless represented a diplomatic metamorphosis that few could have imagined even five years ago.

“My view is that this is the beginning, not the end, of what is going to be a journey that takes some time,” Obama told CNN in an interview ahead of the trip.

“This is a matter of us engaging directly with the Cuban people and being able to have candid, tough conversations directly with the Cuban government,” Obama said. “We will have more influence and have greater capacity to advocate on behalf of the values that we care about when we’re actually talking to them.”

The presidential trip to Havana is the culmination of a three-year effort to restore ties to the island, which sits 90 miles from Key West, Florida, but has long been off-limits for most American visitors. For decades, the island was regarded as a Cold War adversary, a forbidden place run by bearded strongmen that residents fled on makeshift rafts.

Following in the path of the Obamas

With his family in tow, Obama hopes to change that perception, highlighting the country’s emerging private economy and meeting with outspoken opponents of the Castro regime. Before he departed, Obama met with Cuban-Americans in a bid to garner support for his diplomatic thaw, which is still met with skepticism among many in the large Cuban diaspora in South Florida and elsewhere. Several of the participants in the meeting will join Obama on his trip.

With relaxed restrictions on who can travel to Cuba, many more Americans will now able to follow the Obamas’ lead. And administration officials hope improved economic ties can foster a new dynamic between individual Cubans and Americans.

But critics of Obama’s policy, including outspoken Cuban-American members of Congress such as Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Democrat Robert Menendez, argue the opening only rewards an authoritarian regime — one that has yet to show much sign of reform.

Obama will tend to the Cuban government while here, sitting Monday for his third bilateral meeting with leader Raul Castro since taking office and participating in the usual trappings of an official presidential visit, including a formal welcoming ceremony and a state dinner at the Revolutionary Palace.

But he’ll also peel away for less formal encounters, allowing the presidential spotlight to also shine on ordinary Cubans living in a new era, including during an address to the Cuban people during a speech broadcast on state television, and the meeting with anti-Castro dissidents.

Before he departs Tuesday, Obama will watch the Cuban national baseball team play the Tampa Bay Rays, in town for an exhibition game as U.S. Major League Baseball works to update immigration rules for Cuban players.

The sight of a sitting American president setting foot on the island will be a novelty for most Cubans. The last U.S. leader to visit was Calvin Coolidge, who voyaged into Havana Harbor on a battleship in 1928. This time, Obama’s aides want to project a far different image.

“There’s great anticipation here for the visit,” said Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the top American diplomat in the recently reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana. “We want to broaden the engagement underway.”

That engagement began in December 2014, when Obama announced he was working to reopen long-frozen diplomatic ties to the island. The declaration was punctuated by the release of Alan Gross, an American prisoner in Cuba, in exchange for Cubans held in American jails.

Since then, the U.S. government has steadily removed restrictions on travel and commerce between the neighboring countries. Last week, officials announced some of the biggest changes, including allowing Cubans to open U.S. bank accounts and permitting Americans to travel here individually, rather than as a group, for educational or cultural reasons.

You’ve got mail

The first mail flight between the two countries since 1968 arrived in Havana from Miami on Wednesday, carrying on it a letter from Obama to a Havana coffee shop owner, a response to a series of missives he’d received ahead of his trip.

It’s still difficult to get here as an American; charter flights remain the only option until U.S. carriers resume regular flights later this year.

But once those flights are underway, U.S. officials expect a steady flow of American visitors that will outlast Obama’s presidency.

“We very much want to make the process of normalization irreversible,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser and a chief draftsman of the Cuba policy.

Rhodes and Obama have cited Cuba — along with a brokered deal with Iran to end its nuclear program — as successful evidence of the President’s 2009 inaugural vow to “extend a hand” to traditional U.S. foes.

But without congressional action to lift a longstanding trade embargo, there’s little Obama can do to fully restore economic ties to Cuba. He told CNN he didn’t expect lawmakers to take action while he’s in office.

“My strong prediction is that sometime in the next president’s administration, whether they are a Democrat or a Republican, that the embargo in fact will be removed,” he said.

The current Congress has shown little appetite for such a move.

“There has not been a single democratic opening; not a single change on the island in human rights,” Rubio, at the time a GOP presidential candidate, said during a CNN debate last week. “In fact, things are worse than they were before this opening.”

He continued, “The only thing that’s changed as a result of this opening is that now the Cuban government has more sources of money from which to build out their repressive apparatus and maintain themselves there permanently.”

While most Republicans in Congress have expressed little interest in lifting the blanket restrictions, Obama has found some bipartisan support.

“If there’s one policy that has aided the Castros, that’s kept them in power, it’s the travel ban and the embargo,” Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who will travel with Obama to Cuba, told CNN in an interview. “It’s given them a convenient excuse for the failure of socialism. So we ought to remove that crutch. We’re doing so. And I think we’ll move ahead more quickly now.”

Obama to rebut GOP Muslim rhetoric in Baltimore mosque visit

— Seeking to rebut what he views as perilous election-year bombast about Muslims, President Barack Obama heads Wednesday to a mosque in Baltimore, his first visit to such a site in the United States.

At the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a 47-year-old mosque with thousands of attendees, Obama plans to herald the contributions of Muslims to American society while issuing a forceful counterpoint to the language favored by some Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump, according to White House officials.

“We’ve seen an alarming willingness on the part of some Republicans to try to marginalize law-abiding, patriotic Muslim Americans,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday. “It’s just offensive to a lot of Americans who recognize that those kinds of cynical political tactics run directly contrary to the values that we hold dear in this country. And I think the President is looking forward to the opportunity to make that point.”

Obama has visited mosques in the past, but never inside the United States, which is home to 2.75 million Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center. Many Muslim groups have called for him to schedule a stop at a U.S. mosque as a public rejection of Islamophobia, the same way President George W. Bush did in the days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But for Obama, who continues to be dogged by conspiracy theories that suggest he himself is a Muslim (Obama is a Christian), a stop at an Islamic center proved far more complicated the first seven years of his term. A CNN/ORC poll in September found that 29% of Americans said they believed Obama was a Muslim, including 43% of Republicans.

In his final year in office, however, Obama has sought to use his public platform — however waning — to advocate against what he sees as dangerous threads in the political discourse.

“The President’s trip is extremely timely. It couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, who cited an uptick in vandalism at mosques, and violence against Muslims entering and exiting places of worship, as indications the time was right for a presidential visit.

During a meeting with Muslim community leaders in December, Khera lobbied top Obama aides, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, to schedule a visit for Obama to a U.S. mosque, an event the White House moved quickly to produce.

“Coming to a mosque is a public reminder that Muslims have been part of America since our nation’s founding,” Khera said. “My hope is that he may view this as an occasion to send the message that mosques are not breeding grounds for terrorism. This is not where ISIS is recruiting. Law enforcement sources tell us ISIS is recruiting online, not in our mosques.”

Obama entered office in 2009 hoping to repair relations with Muslims abroad, who felt targeted after American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and infuriated by the use of torture on terror suspects. Months after taking office, he fulfilled a campaign promise to deliver a speech to global followers of Islam, traveling to Cairo and insisting the U.S. seek a “new beginning” with Muslim countries.

While in Egypt he toured the Sultan Hassan Mosque alongside a veiled Hillary Clinton, then serving as his secretary of state. He’s also visited mosques in Jakarta, in 2010, and Kuala Lumpur, in 2014.

In the subsequent years, however, new fears of homegrown attacks have emerged following the rise of ISIS and its dexterity in recruiting would-be terrorists online. Republican candidates have vowed to apply extra scrutiny to Muslims entering the country, and to tamp down on suspected extremist activities at U.S. mosques.

Those plans have earned Obama’s ire. Along with his aides, Obama consistently groups much of the GOP field with the most outspoken proponent for religious screening, Trump. In December Trump proposed banning all Muslims from entering the country until better anti-terror measures were enacted.

The Republican proposals have prompted fears from U.S. officials that Obama’s work toward repairing relations with the Arab world could be diminished by the increasingly loud rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Obama’s response has been scathing, including remarks late last week at a retreat for Democratic lawmakers.

“We’re not going to strengthen our leadership around the world by allowing politicians to insult Muslims or pit groups of Americans against each other. That’s not who we are. That’s not keeping America safe,” Obama said, describing Republican rhetoric as “phony tough talk and bluster and over-the-top claims.”

Michelle Obama on young Barack: ‘He was a bum’

— President Barack Obama has always been candid about his youthful transgressions — a history his wife referenced Tuesday when explaining anyone can become a high achiever.

“Barack fooled around in high school,” the first lady said on the BET talk-show “The Real” during a session focused on higher education.

“He didn’t take school seriously in high school. He barely got his work done. He was a bum! And it took him a second. He had to grow up a little bit,” she said.

Michelle Obama said her husband didn’t become serious about his education until he transferred to Columbia University during his second year of college.

Later, asked about any advice she’d give parents of apprehensive parents of college-bound kids, Michelle Obama offered a similarly blunt response.

“When they get to be 17, you’ll be like ‘Bye Felicia!'” she said to laughter.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move turns 5; Is it working?

Chocolate bunnies and jelly beans generally render the Easter holiday a high-calorie event. On the Monday afterward, First Lady Michelle Obama, leading a high-energy dance in front of a large crowd at the White House, wants to ensure those calories get burnt off.

Seeking to capitalize on the popularity of the White House Easter Egg roll, Mrs. Obama turned this year’s event into a fifth birthday party for her Let’s Move initiative, which she launched in 2010 as a way to combat childhood obesity.

Aside from the decidedly low-impact egg roll itself, the 35,000 expected attendees could spin on stationary bikes or Zumba off a few pounds on the South Lawn. The first lady danced while her husband, the President, won a round of kiddie tennis.

“Be a part of the movement. It’s fun!” extolled the first lady. “It’s a great way to get everybody moving.”

On its fifth anniversary, Let’s Move has survived criticism from Republicans, food companies, school lunch professionals, and — perhaps most visibly — schoolkids themselves, some of who registered their displeasure at new school lunch rules by posting photos of soggy scoops of vegetables on social media.

But amid the onslaught, signs of progress have emerged. Last year the Centers for Disease Control said the prevalence of obesity dropped 43% among young children — aged 2-4 — between 2004 and 2012.

Critics said that measurement cherry-picked the data for good news amid what otherwise remains a worrying trend toward overweight and obese kids. At 17%, the overall rate of childhood obesity remains more than three times higher than it was in 1974. That overall rate hasn’t changed since 2008, before Let’s Move began.

But experts say the drop in early childhood obesity is a promising sign since it suggests kids may be learning healthy habits earlier. And they assert an obesity rate that isn’t rising is a good sign.

How much that has to do with Let’s Move — if anything at all — remains unknown.

“Across the whole spectrum of kids what we’re seeing…is a slowing down and stabilization” of obesity rates, said Dr. Deb Galuska, the Associate Director of Science, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the CDC.

“We don’t know the reason,” she said. “There’s been a big emphasis on obesity issues though a variety of channels.”

The first lady has been careful not to proclaim victory against obesity too loudly. But she has taken come credit for the small signs that kids are leading healthier lives.

“I just think we have seen a change in the culture,” she said on “Live with Kelly and Michael” Monday, one of several daytime talk show interviews she’s participated in to mark the Let’s Move anniversary.

“Five years ago people looked at me like I was crazy because they said it wasn’t an issue,” she said. “That childhood obesity wasn’t an issue in this country. And today we have seen changes, improvements in the school lunches. We’ve seen grocery store manufacturers putting healthy food there and keeping the prices low. Schools, classrooms are putting in salad bars. And kids are getting active during the day. It’s just been a real culture shift.”

Those improvements are likely to do little to quiet the critics of Let’s Move. They aren’t necessarily opposed to the program’s mission of reducing childhood obesity, which is a widely acknowledged epidemic that analysts have said could cost the country billions in increased medical costs and potentially create a generation whose lifespans are shorter than their parents.

Instead, opponents say the program enforces a nanny state mentality that touches families at a deeply personal level — asking parents to change daily routines and long-held ideas about food — in the hopes of slowing the decades-long increase in childhood obesity rates.

The program has become the largest and most visible element of Michelle Obama’s policy efforts, which also include supporting veterans and bolstering the place of women and girls in foreign countries. From its launch through late last year, the program was headed by the Obamas’ personal chef, Sam Kass, whose role at the White House went beyond just preparing the first family’s daily meals and into molding the Obamas as models of healthy living.

He installed a vegetable garden and bee hive on the White House South Lawn, emulating the local-eating trend that was also spreading to restaurants around the country. As the executive director of Let’s Move, he was credited with helping convince grocery stores to stock healthier kids foods. President Obama named him the first-ever Senior Policy Adviser for Nutrition — a title that reflected the heavy influence he wielded in Michelle Obama’s signature program.

In December, the newly married Kass announced he was stepping down to move closer to his wife, a cable news anchor based in New York. His replacement, Debra Eschmeyer, has deep roots in food policy as the co-founder of FoodCorps, an organization that works to get healthy ingredients to kids in low-income neighborhoods.

Galuska , the CDC scientist, said Let’s Move could yield results only if parallel obesity reduction efforts succeed.

“There’s a lot of things happening across many sectors,” she said. “In order to make progress those sectors will have to continue to working together.”

5 reasons Obama’s Africa leaders’ summit matters

By any measure it’s historic: The vast majority of Africa’s leaders flying to Washington at the invite of the President, whose father was born on the continent, to mark what the White House hopes is a new era of cooperation.

While plans for the first African Leaders Summit this week in the nation’s capital are ambitious, the reality is the United States still has strides to make on the kind of political and economic relationships in Africa that can benefit both sides.

Other nations, namely China, have turned their focus to the continent as a trade partner. Terrorist networks have expanded their reach in some countries, most notably in Nigeria, where hundreds of schoolgirls remain at large after being kidnapped earlier this year. And while U.S.-backed efforts have helped slow the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, countries there rate among the lowest in life expectancy and infant mortality.

“The importance of this for America needs to be understood,” President Barack Obama said on Friday about the summit.

He added later that Africa “happens to be one of the continents where America is most popular and people feel a real affinity for our way of life.”

Here are five reasons that the U.S.-Africa Leader’s Summit, which kicked off on Monday, is important:

1. Health scare: The health problems in Africa were underscored this week when an Ebola outbreak prompted leaders of two nations to cancel their trips to Washington.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Ernest Bai Koroma, the leader of Sierra Leone, both said they would remain in their countries.

Ebola has killed more than 700 people in three nations: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra.

Summit leaders, and even Obama, have stressed there is no risk to Washingtonians from those arriving from Africa this week.

Obama said anyone who might have been exposed to the virus would be screened both in their home countries and upon arrival in the United States.

But worry over the worsening outbreak only highlighted challenges Africa faces in combating disease and poverty, despite the billions in U.S. aid over the years.

“This is an uphill challenge for them,” said Gayle Smith, Obama’s senior director for development and Democracy, noting both Liberia and Sierra Leone had recently emerged from periods of civil war.

Obama hopes to move past the traditional elements of humanitarian aid to Africa, focusing instead on potential trade.

But promoting commercial ties with countries engulfed in Ebola outbreaks could prove to be difficult. The State Department warned against non-essential travel to Sierra Leone and Libera last week, and some schools and businesses have closed.

“The timing is very unfortunate, and no one would have wished for this,” said Howard French, an associate professor of international affairs at Columbia University. “Having high-level discussions between the U.S. and Africa on business and investment are infrequent. So to the extent that this distracts from that I think will be regretted all around.”

2. Security challenges: Another potential barrier to U.S. investment in Africa: Growing extremism on the continent, which has overwhelmed certain governments.

The most flagrant example came earlier this summer, when the group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 school girls in Nigeria. The incident prompted international outrage and so far, a U.S.-backed team has not located them.

Nigeria-based Boko Haram opposes western-style education, and there are fears the group’s influence could be crossing borders.

Last month, armed gunman suspected to be Boko Haram militants abducted the wife of Cameroon’s deputy prime minister.

Intra-country sniping has followed. Nigeria has expressed frustration with Cameroon for not doing enough to fight Boko Haram on its side of the border, a charge Cameroon has denied.

The unrest has inflicted damage on African economies, including Nigeria’s, the largest on the continent. Other African nations combating violent extremism, like Mali, Kenya and Somalia, are also tough sells for U.S. investment.

Many of those nations want more U.S. assistance to counter militants, sentiments likely to be expressed at this week’s summit.

“We are concerned about efforts by terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Africa,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

He pointed to U.S. counterterror efforts that aim to partner with nations in stemming unrest.

“We’re looking at how do we get at the broader issue of countering violent extremism in Africa so that these groups, like Boko Haram, like al-Shabaab, like al-Qaeda, are not able to prey on young people with disinformation and intimidation,” he said.

3. Countering China: The United States has some catching up to do in Africa when it comes to trade and investment.

China’s imports of African oil and natural minerals have skyrocketed over the past two decades. Alongside have come massive Chinese investments in African infrastructure and construction projects, manned by waves of Chinese workers who ended up remaining in Africa. More than a million Chinese citizens now live there.

“Africa is in a very particular moment, economically speaking,” said French during an interview with CNNI from Nairobi. “The continent has been growing very fast. Demographically, there’s a bulge in terms of it’s youth population. And Africa needs partnerships.”

Obama wants to make sure the United States is one of those partners, and a more attractive one than China.

“My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai, but that there’s an ability for the African governments to shape how this infrastructure is going to benefit them in the long term,” Obama told The Economist last week.

4. Cementing legacy: Obama’s two predecessors both secured legacy achievements in Africa — Bill Clinton through his African Growth and Opportunity Act, and George W. Bush through his program combating HIV/AIDS.

Obama similarly hopes for a way to leave his mark on the continent after he leaves office, though his status as the first president of African descent has already made history.

That fact led some Africans to regard Obama with outsized expectations when he took office in 2009, leading to some disappointment that he hasn’t focused more on shoring up U.S.-Africa ties.

During his time in office, Obama has focused on terrorism, uprisings in the Arab world, Russian provocations, and the much-awaited pivot to Asia.

Obama made his first presidential trip to sub-Saharan Africa in 2009 when he visited Ghana. He didn’t return again until 2013 with tour of Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa.

He’s embarked upon an initiative that aims to bring electricity to more Africans, and a program supporting young leaders working toward Democratic governments.

Both elements to a legacy designed to shore up conditions for individuals on the continent.

And the summit itself, while not expected to produce any large-scale trade agreements, is meant to signal a shift from purely humanitarian assistance to a two-way partnership.

“We believe it can be a game-changer in the U.S.-Africa relationship,” Rhodes said of the summit.

5. Not invited: While the bulk of Africa’s leaders will be in Washington, the continent’s most reviled leaders won’t be attending. They include Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

They weren’t invited because of their alleged human rights abuses.

Other controversial leaders — like Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, accused of crimes at the International Criminal Court — will attend.

Like any major diplomatic gathering, the Africa Leaders Summit has been an exercise in protocol and careful planning.

Instead of meeting with leaders separately, Obama has been scheduled for larger group discussions, to the disappointment of some who wanted to talk to him one-on-one.

“We just wouldn’t be able to do bilats with everybody, and so the simplest thing is for the President to devote his time to engaging broadly with all the leaders. That way we’re not singling out individuals at the expense of the other leaders,” Rhodes said.

He noted Obama would speak with each leader individually during a dinner at the White House on Tuesday.

That event has taken on state dinner-type proportions, with a large tent constructed on the South Lawn. Organizers have the added stress of accommodating leaders of 50 nations, all with varied religious and cultural sensitivities that must be respected.

For example, servers must know who drinksalcohol, and who abstain for religious reasons.

It’s a reflection of just how diverse Africa is, and how high the stakes are for Obama as he forges new relationships there.