Obama cheered in Havana at start of historic visit to Cuba

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Obamas Arrive in Cuba


HAVANA, March 20 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama arrived to small but cheering crowds on Sunday at the start of a historic visit to Cuba that opened a new chapter in U.S. engagement with the island's Communist government after decades of hostility between the former Cold War foes.

The three-day trip, the first by a U.S. president to Cuba in 88 years, is the culmination of a diplomatic opening announced by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014, ending an estrangement that began when the Cuban revolution ousted a pro-American government in 1959.

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"It's a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people," Obama told staff at the newly reopened U.S. Embassy who were gathered at a hotel, his first stop after arriving in the afternoon.

Groups of Cubans watched the motorcade from balconies and backyards as Obama was driven downtown, where a small crowd of Cubans braved a tropical downpour and tight security. They chanted: "Viva Obama, Viva Fidel," as the president and his family left after eating dinner in a rundown neighborhood.

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Obama cheered in Havana at start of historic visit to Cuba
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to cheering fans as he arrives for a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The crowd roared as President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro entered the stadium and walked toward their seats in the VIP section behind home plate. It's the first game featuring an MLB team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played in the country in 1999. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Cuban President Raul Castro (R) raises US President Barack Obama's hand during a joint press conference at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized. AFP PHOTO/STR / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) while acknowledging members of Congress that are attending a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive to the state dinner at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque / AFP / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks with Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel ahead of the state dinner at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque / AFP / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gestures during an entrepreneurship panel discussion in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks during an entrepreneurship panel discussion in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: The Presidential motorcade carries U.S. President Obama from the Cuban State Council following a joint press conference on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama, who is on a 48 hour trip to Cuba, is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in almost 90 years.(Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro hold a joint press conference at the Cuban State Council, on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama, who is on a 48 hour trip to Cuba, is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in almost 90 years. (Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Cuban President Raul Castro delivers a statement alongside U.S. President Barack Obama at the Palacio de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, March 21, 2016. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement alongside Cuban President Raul Castro at the Palacio de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, March 21, 2016. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama stands near the Jose Marti memorial after taking part in a wreath laying ceremony in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/LatinContent/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C-L) and Cuban President Raul Castro (C-R) meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: President Barack Obama stands with Salvador Valdez Mesa, Vice President of the Council of Ministry, as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) listens to the US national anthem next to the US delegation at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. Obama, meeting Castro for only the third time for formal talks, was the first US president in Cuba since 1928. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama walks up the stairs of the Palacio de la Revolucion to meet Cuban President Raul Castro on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, attends a State Dinner hosted by Cuban President Raul Castro, right, at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro greet one another at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Obama and Castro will be sitting down for bilateral talks. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle arrive for a state dinner with Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. Obama's visit to Cuba is a crowning moment in his and Castro's bid to normalize ties between two countries that sit just 90 miles apart. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
President Barack Obama greets people in the audience after speaking at an event about entrepreneurship and opportunity for Cubans at La Cerveceria in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. Obama's visit to Cuba is a crowning moment in his and President Raul Castro's bid to normalize ties between two countries that sit just 90 miles apart. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
Cuba's President Raul Casro, left, walks with U.S. President Barack Obama, as they inspect the guard in Revolution Palace, Monday, March 21, 2016. Brushing past profound differences, President Obama and President Castro sat down for a historic meeting, offering critical clues about whether Obama's sharp U-turn in policy will be fully reciprocated. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
President Barack Obama waves to journalists next to a painting of President Abraham Lincoln at Havana's City Museum during a visit to Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
President Barack Obama and his daughter Malia smile as the visit a monument of Cuban independence hero Carlos Manuel de Cespedes during their visit to Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. First lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha stand at left. Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
US President Barack Obama talks to tourists and Cubans at his arrival to the Havana Cathedral, on March 20, 2016. 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. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE / AFP / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (C) walks through the the Museum of the City of Havana during a walking tour of the historic Old Havana guided by city historian Eusebio Leal (R) March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (C), first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia, 17, and Sasha, 14, stop to look at a painting of Abraham Lincoln in the Museum of the City of Havana during a walking tour of the historic Old Havana guided by city historian Eusebio Leal (L) March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama signs a visitors' book at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Jose Marti monument in the Revolution Palace of Havana next to the Vice-President of the Cuban Council Salvador Valdes Mesa (R) on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ STR / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Cuban President Raul Castro pose for photographs after greeting one another at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Obama and Castro will sit down for bilateral talks and will deliver joint statements to the news media. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (L) and Cuban President Raul Castro meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: President Barack Obama and John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, listen to the playing of the U.S. National Anthem as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R), First Lady Michelle Obama (C) and US Charge d'Affaires in Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis meet with US embassy staff in Havana on March 20, 2016. Obama arrived in Cuba to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century-long Cold War conflict that turned the communist island and its giant neighbor into bitter enemies. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Air Force One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The plane transporting US President Barack Obama lands at Jose Marti international airport in Havana on March 20, 2016. Obama, who is on a historic three-day visit to the communist-ruled island, flew to Cuba Sunday to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century-long Cold War standoff, but the arrest of dozens of dissidents just as his plane took off underlined the delicacy of the mission. AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Sasha Obama (R) arrive at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Obama, who abandoned a longtime U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba, wants to make his policy shift irreversible even if a Republican wins the White House in the Nov. 8 election.

But major obstacles remain to full normalization of ties, and the Democratic president's critics say the visit is premature. U.S. officials concede the trip may not yield immediate concessions from Cuba on rights and economic freedom.

On Sunday, one bystander shouted: "Down with the blockade," in reference to the U.S. embargo in place for 54 years that remains the top irritant for Cubans. Obama, who responded to the shout by raising his right hand, has asked Congress to rescind the embargo but has been blocked by the Republican leadership.

Underscoring the ideological divide that persists between Washington and Havana, Cuban police, backed by hundreds of pro-government demonstrators, broke up the regular march of a leading dissident group, the Ladies in White, detaining about 50 people just hours before Obama arrived.

AIR FORCE ONE IN CUBA

Obama arrived at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport in Air Force One, the presidential jet with "United States of America" emblazoned across its fuselage, a sight almost unimaginable not long ago on the island, just 90 miles (145 km) off the coast of Florida.

He was met by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, the top Cuban official present. The formal welcoming ceremony will be on Monday when Obama meets the Cuban president at the presidential palace.

Read reactions to Obama's arrival in Cuba

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Obama cheered in Havana at start of historic visit to Cuba
As a child of the '60s, and all that conflict, it is remarkable to see Air Force One taxying down the runway in Havana. So much history.
First sighting of Cuba!! #CubaVisit https://t.co/ckKuL7Rpnd
Wow, President Obama just landed in Cuba, a big deal, and Raul Castro wasn't even there to greet him. He greeted Pope and others. No respect
What a fantastic point in history seeingPresident Obama land in Cuba.Diplomacy finally triumphs over ideology @POTUS https://t.co/DRbxhEC951
As someone who worked on US-Cuba relations at the ARCA Foundation, I'm so proud to see this historic visit by @POTUS & @FLOTUS to #Cuba.
Historic visit to Cuba by @POTUS promises a new, constructive era of American-Cuban relations. This is what strong leadership looks like.
I have a word for the people of Cuba who will witness the gaudy spectacle in Havana: America has not forgotten you: https://t.co/AiTSTraOPA
Congrats @POTUS - first USA president to visit Cuba in 88 years - putting behind him more than 50 years of conflict between the US and Cuba
Excited to join @POTUS in Cuba and start a new chapter in US-Cuba relations! Follow along for updates on our #CubaVisit.
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U.S. officials appeared unfazed by Castro's absence from the airport welcome, even though he personally met and greeted Pope Francis in September. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump tweeted that Obama's visit was a "big deal" but that he got "no respect."

Obama will hold talks with Castro - but not his brother Fidel, the revolutionary leader - and speak to entrepreneurs on Monday. He meets privately with dissidents, addresses Cubans live on state-run media and attends an exhibition baseball game on Tuesday.

The trip carries both symbolism and substance after decades of hostility between Washington and Havana.

Traveling with first lady Michelle Obama, her mother and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, Obama took in the sights of the colonial-era neighborhood and was given a tour of Havana's 18th century cathedral by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a role in secret talks that led to the rapprochement 15 months ago.

The Obamas dined at the San Cristobal restaurant, run by an Afro-Cuban as part of a cautious opening to private enterprise since Fidel Castro handed power to his brother in 2008.

The trip makes Obama the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship in 1928 and may help chip away at barriers to U.S.-Cuba trade and travel.

See photos of Cuba preparing for the president's visit

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Obama cheered in Havana at start of historic visit to Cuba
Refrigerator magnets are displayed for sale in a tourist shop, several showing images of U.S. President Barack Obama, at a market in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. President Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A taxi pedals his bicycle, decorated with Cuban and U.S. flags, as he transports a woman holding a sleeping girl, near the Capitolio in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 15, 2016. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A fighting rooster wearing a leash on its ankle waits in the sun for its owner in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A youth fishes by hand using fishing line on the shores of Regla, as commuters cross the bay by ferry to Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. People who fish here tend to catch small sardines and a fish known as "bonito." U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
An artisan who goes by the nickname Buby displays several refrigerator magnets of U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for sale at a souvenir shop in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. Obama is traveling to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A classic American convertible sits parked outside the National Theatre where U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to speak during his upcoming trip, in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20 for a trip that will mark a watershed moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, making Obama the first sitting U.S. president to set foot on the island in nearly seven decades. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
A taxi driving a classic American car passes a billboard that reads in Spanish: "Long live free Cuba" in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. The trip will mark a watershed moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, making Obama the first sitting U.S. president to set foot on the island in nearly seven decades. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
A "quinceanera" poses during her photo session in front of the cathedral as tourists line up to enter the building, in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Tourists walk next to an weathered old photo of Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A man enters a building that has a mural with the face of a woman, in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
An elderly woman attends an outdoor Tai Chi session in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Workers repair the street in front of the Capitolio in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A youth fishes by hand using fishing line on the shores of Regla, as commuters cross the bay by ferry to Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. People who fish here tend to catch small sardines and a fish known as "bonito." U.S. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
The artisan called "Buby" displays several refrigerator magnets showing images of U.S. President Barack Obama, for sale in a tourist shop in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 14, 2016. President Barack Obama is traveling to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
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Since rapprochement, the two sides have restored diplomatic ties and signed commercial deals on telecommunications and scheduled airline service.

Obama has used executive authority to loosen trade and travel restrictions to advance his outreach to Cuba, one of his top foreign policy priorities along with the Iran nuclear deal.

Cuba still complains about U.S. control of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay under a 1934 lease agreement that Havana says is no longer valid and that Obama has said is not up for discussion. Havana is unhappy with U.S. support for dissidents and anti-communist radio and TV programs beamed into Cuba.

Speaking to reporters, Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment minister Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz said before the U.S. president's arrival that Obama's regulatory moves "go in the right direction." But he added: "We can't reach a normalization of relations with the blockade still in effect."

'¿QUÉ BOLÁ CUBA?'

The Americans in turn criticize one-party rule and repression of political opponents, an issue that aides said Obama would address publicly and privately.

Obama's critics at home accuse him of making too many concessions for too little in return from the Cuban government and of using his trip to take an unearned "victory lap."

Obama's first words to the Cuban people came in a message on Twitter, a social media service that few Cubans can use regularly because of government restrictions on Internet access.

"¿Qué bolá Cuba?" he said, using Cuban slang for "what's up?"

"Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people."

Little progress on the main issues is expected when Obama and Castro meet on Monday or at a state dinner that evening.

Instead, the highlights are likely to be Obama's speech on live Cuban television on Tuesday, when he will also meet dissidents and attend an exhibition baseball game between Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team.

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