Obama looks to seal Cuba engagement on landmark trip

Washington (AFP) - Barack Obama touches down in Havana on Sunday to cap a long-unimaginable rapprochement with Cuba and burnish a presidential legacy dulled by Middle East quagmires and partisan sniping.

As Air Force One rolls to a stop, Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship in 1928, before the discovery of penicillin or invention of the ballpoint pen.

With wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia in tow, Obama will tour Old Havana, sit down with Raul Castro -- although not his brother Fidel -- and speak directly to Cubans who have been inculcated in a lifetime of propaganda against imperialist Yankees.

By making the high-profile hop across the 90 mile (150 kilometer) Straits of Florida, he will also want to dispense with tired stereotypes which Americans have of Cuba.

Obama's strategy of pursuing economic engagement in the hope that political reforms follow depends on Americans booking holidays, trading goods and making Cuban contacts.

Yet many Americans still see Cuba as president John F. Kennedy's "imprisoned island," synonymous with conflagration, communism and repression.

Obama came to power seeking to unfreeze that time warp and complete the rapprochement Kennedy sought with revolutionary Cuba before he was cut down in Dallas.

- The Obama doctrine -

Obama has sometimes found more joy negotiating with enemies than with America's long-time allies -- as was the case with his landmark nuclear deal with Iran.

His strategic step back from the Middle East -- which he believes has been too prominent in America's foreign policy for too long -- has irked the likes of Saudi Arabia.

Critics argue the results of that policy have been disastrous, claiming his withdrawal from Iraq and unwillingness to stop a brutal war in Syria have fueled the rise of the Islamic State group.

But for three days in Cuba, the usually calculating Obama wants to reap the rewards of his audacious gamble.

His visit is the culmination of 18 months of secret negotiations that led to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the US embassy in Havana last August.

The 44th president will hold talks with the communist government, but the White House has made it clear the emphasis will be on reaching the Cuban people directly.

He will meet dissidents, entrepreneurs and deliver a speech on Monday that will be broadcast live on radio and television.

"We see this speech as a unique moment in the history between our countries," said Ben Rhodes, the architect of Obama's opening to Cuba and a senior foreign policy advisor.

Expect Obama to talk up common bonds, just as much as pushing for greater openness.

The trip will include a homage to Jose Marti -- a revered Cuban patriot who was exiled to New York amid the independence struggle against Spain.

He will also catch a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team. The sport is an obsession in both countries.

The arrival of America's first black president, and one 30 years younger than Raul Castro, will have a special resonance in the Afro-Cuban community, notoriously under-represented in the Cuban political elite.

The White House also hopes Obama's visit will resonate beyond Cuba's shores and amplify a much-muffled call for improved relations with all of Latin America.

Obama's White House has struggled to overcome the legacy of George W. Bush, who through the Iraq War and harsh rhetoric had rekindled anti-US sentiment borne of past coups, death squads and heavy handed intervention.

Obama's visit to Cuba is the capstone of that effort.

"We very much saw the Cuba opening as a means of trying to drain the toxic nature of the US role in left-wing Latin American politics," Rhodes told AFP recently.