Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Ahead of Obama, Cuba's main airport shows sign of strain

Published:Sunday | March 20, 2016 | 3:29 PM
A musician performs wearing a T-shirt designed with an image of President Barack Obama at a weekly rumba dance gathering in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday.

HAVANA (AP) -- The latest on President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba (all times local):

12:50 p.m.

Havana's airport is showing signs of stress as it prepares for Air Force One to arrive.

Obama will land at Jose Marti International Airport on Sunday afternoon. It's the same airport where Cuban President Raul Castro greeted Pope Francis during his historic trip last year.

American journalists and White House officials travelling to Havana on a chartered flight got a firsthand taste of how Obama's high-profile trip is testing Cuba's careworn infrastructure. The flight was kept in a holding pattern in Cuban airspace for much of an hour after the captain was informed the airport had been temporarily shut down.

At the airport, Cuba's main gateway to the skies, cell phone service alternates between spotty and nonfunctional.

Commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba are expected to resume this year following a deal the U.S. and Cuba reached. That includes as many as 20 flights per day to Havana and others to smaller Cuban airports.

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12:40 p.m.

Cuba's minister of foreign trade and investment is calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to extend measures easing the U.S. embargo.

The Obama administration recently announced it was making it easier for U.S. companies to do business with Cuba's budding private sector and also telecommunications concerns.

But Foreign Trade minister Rodrigo Malmierca notes that state-run enterprises still control most of the Cuban economy.

He says U.S. authorities "have maintained a discriminatory fence in relation to the public sector."

Malmierca on Sunday acknowledged that Washington has made significant policy changes such as ending a prohibition on Cuban financial transactions passing through U.S. banks.

But he said their true effect will have to be judged in results going forward.

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12:30 p.m.

A small group of Cuban dissidents are carrying out an anti-government demonstration in Havana hours before U.S. President Barack Obama is set to arrive.

Members of the Ladies in White group are attending Mass at a Catholic Church as about 10 other dissidents have gathered in a park outside.

Two men are holding a hand-lettered sign that says: "Obama, travelling to Cuba is not fun. No more human rights violations."

For the last year, weekly Sunday marches by the Ladies with other government opponents have routinely been broken up by counter-protesters and then the police, who round up the dissidents, load them on buses and detain them briefly.

Former political prisoner Angel Moya says they want to send a message to Obama that "this is not the time for the president to visit Cuba. He said he would only come when there were improvements on human rights, and in practice the Cuban government is oppressing (us) more."

Dissidents alleged that some of their numbers were prevented by authorities from attending the demonstration.

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12:00 p.m.

One of the hottest tickets during U.S. President Obama's historic visit to Havana is a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team.

Unfortunately for most fans, it's invite-only.

The national sporting authority says seats will be allotted through organisations like government-authorised student groups, workplaces and sports clubs.

It said in state media on Sunday that the general public can follow the game live on radio and TV, however.

Obama is expected to attend Tuesday's game, the first involving a Major League Baseball team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played two exhibition matches in 1999.

Workers recently spruced up Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano, which is home to the Cuban baseball league's most prominent team, Industriales.

Admission to the stadium is normally open, and costs just pennies.

Restricting access to the game essentially ensures a well-behaved crowd and little chance of interruption by political dissidents.

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11:10 a.m.

There's at least one place in Cuba where the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama isn't the centre of attention: That's in the country's state-run newspapers.

Cuban media are publishing photographs of retired leader Fidel Castro meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who arrived Friday for a state visit.

Venezuela has been a close ally of Cuba under Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. The two countries have done billions of dollars' worth in trade, with oil from Venezuela and Cuba sending thousands of doctors, sports trainers and other specialists to the South American nation.

As Cuba awaits a historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama later Sunday, it's a signal that renewed relations with Washington are not diminishing Havana's support for Venezuela's socialist government.

The photographs of Maduro and Fidel Castro were posted Sunday in government newspapers and on the Cubadebate website, which said the encounter took place the previous day.

They met in the home where Castro typically is pictured receiving foreign dignitaries. He was shown seated in a rolling chair wearing sandals and a track suit and gesturing as he spoke with Maduro.

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10:35 a.m.

Cubans are excitedly anticipating the first visit to Cuba by a sitting American president in almost nine decades.

Carlos Maza is a 48-year-old refrigerator repairman who says he's never seen anything like it in his life and calls it "incredible."

Maza hopes U.S. businesspeople and tourists will help the economy improve. He says change has been slow in Cuba, but the diplomatic opening is "a big step forward."

Xiomara Sanchez said she feels "proud that (Obama) is coming to Cuba to find a way toward a friendship, a family, with us."

The 60-year-old cafeteria worker also sees change happening slowly: "It hasn't done much, but it has created some change."

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9:25 a.m.

It's a typically sleepy Sunday morning along Havana's Malecon boulevard, which is largely deserted a few hours ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's arrival in Cuba, except for a few joggers, fishermen and pelicans.

Roberto Albar is a 68-year-old retiree. He sees the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations as a sign that both countries can benefit from the relationship.

He says "we are practically neighbours" and Cuba's political system "doesn't mean we have to be enemies."

Albar says he hasn't seen any significant change in Cuba in the year since ties were restored. Pointing to his decaying house near the sea, he says "that's falling down, and the poor are still poor."

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8:40 a.m.

The U.S. has given the online lodging service Airbnb a special license that allows travellers from around the world to book stays in private homes in Cuba.

Airbnb was the first major American company to enter Cuba after American President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro declared detente on Dec. 17, 2014.

The online service handles listing, booking and payments for people looking to stay in private homes instead of hotels. Cuba has become its fastest-growing market, with about 4,000 homes added over the last year.

Airbnb had only been allowed to let U.S. travellers use its services in Cuba under a relatively limited U.S. exception to a trade embargo. That limit has been lifted.