Stepping into history, President Barack Obama opened an extraordinary visit to Cuba on Sunday, eager to push decades of acrimony deeper into the past and forge irreversible ties with America's former adversary.

"This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity," Obama said as he greeted staff of the new U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Air Force One touched down on a rainy, overcast day in the Cuban capital. The president was joined by wife Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha.

Obama was greeted by top Cuban officials — but not President Raul Castro. The Cuban leader frequently greets major world figures upon their arrival at Jose Marti International Airport, but was absent on the tarmac. Instead, he planned to greet Obama on Monday at the Palace of the Revolution.

The White House has stated that Obama will not formally meet with ailing longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, brother of Raul Castro. 

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U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle toured Old Havana at the start of their three-day visit to Cuba on Sunday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Obama's whirlwind trip is a crowning moment in his and Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. While deep differences persist, the economic and political relationship has changed rapidly in the 15 months since the leaders vowed a new beginning.

After greeting embassy staff, Obama and his family toured Old Havana by foot, despite a heavy downpour. They walked gingerly on the slippery wet stones in the square in front of the Havana Cathedral. A few hundred people gathered in the square erupted in applause and shouted Obama's name as the family stepped forward.

The Obamas then dined at a privately-owned restaurant in a bustling, working class neighbourhood. Jubilant crowds surged toward the president's heavily fortified motorcade as it inched toward the San Cristobal restaurant.

For more than 50 years, Cuba was an unimaginable destination for a U.S. president, as well as most American citizens. The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro's revolution sparked fears of communism spreading to the Western Hemisphere. Domestic politics in both countries contributed to the continued estrangement well after the Cold War ended.

"He wanted to come to Cuba with all his heart," 79-year-old Odilia Collazo said in Spanish as she watched Obama's arrival live on state television. "Let God will that this is good for all Cubans. It seems to me that Obama wants to do something good before he leaves."

Ahead of Obama's arrival, counter-protesters and police broke up an anti-government demonstration by the Ladies in White group, whose members were taken into custody by female police officers in a scene that plays out in Havana each Sunday. They're typically detained briefly and then released.

Obama's visit was highly anticipated in Cuba, where workers furiously cleaned up the streets in Old Havana and gave buildings a fresh coat of paint ahead of his arrival. American flags were raised alongside the Cuban colours in parts of the capital, an improbable image for those who have lived through a half-century of bitterness between the two countries.

Obama arrives in Cuba2:46

Many Cubans stayed home in order to avoid extensive closures of main boulevards. The city's seaside Malecon promenade was largely deserted Sunday morning except for a few cars, joggers, fishermen and pelicans.

The president's three-day schedule in Cuba is jam-packed, including an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs. But much of Obama's visit is about appealing directly to the Cuban people and celebrating the island's vibrant culture.

"I don't think that the Cuban people are going to be bewitched by North American culture," Gustavo Machin, Cuba's deputy director of U.S. affairs, told The Associated Press. "We don't fear ties with the United States."

A highlight of Obama's visit comes Tuesday when he joins Castro and a crowd of baseball-crazed Cubans for a game between the beloved national team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays. Obama brought the widow of baseball legend Jackie Robinson and his daughter Sharon on the trip. Robinson played in Cuba in 1947.

The U.S. president is also planning a speech at the Grand Theatre of Havana to lay out his vision for greater freedoms and more economic opportunity in Cuba.

Two years after taking power in 2008, Raul Castro launched economic and social reforms that appear slow-moving to many Cubans and foreigners, but are lasting and widespread within Cuban society. The changes have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to work in the private sector and have relaxed limits on cellphones, internet and Cubans' comfort with discussing their country's problems in public, for example.

The Cuban government has been unyielding, however, on making changes to its single-party political system and to the strict limits on media, public speech, assembly and dissent.

Obama will spend some time talking with Cuban dissidents. The White House said such a meeting was a prerequisite for the visit. But there were no expectations that he would leave Cuba with significant pledges from the government to address Washington's human rights concerns.

A major focus for Obama is pushing his Cuba policy to the point it will be all but impossible for the next president to reverse it. That includes highlighting new business deals by American companies, including hotel chains Starwood and Marriott and online lodging service Airbnb.

Details of Obama's itinerary

SUNDAY

  • 5:50 p.m. – The President and first lady meet with Embassy personnel and families at Havanaès Melia Habana Hotel
  • 6:40 p.m. – The Obamas take a walking tour of old Havana where he is also slated to meet with Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the archbishop of Havana, who helped broker the deal that restored relations between the two nations

MONDAY

  • Wreath-laying at the José Marti Memorial, morning (Martí was a poet and journalist known for his fight for Cuban independence).
  • Official welcoming ceremony, Palace of the Revolution, morning.
  •  Meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, morning.
  • Entrepreneurship summit, afternoon.
  • State Dinner at the Palace of the Revolution, evening.

TUESDAY

  • Address to the Cuban people at El Gran Teatro de Havana, morning.
  • Meeting with dissidents and civil society leaders, morning. 
  • 2 p.m. - Baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban National Team at Estadio Latinoamericano. The President will be bringing the widow of Jackie Robinson and his daughter Sharon. Robinson played in Cuba in 1947.
  • Departure from Jose Marti International Airport en route to Buenos Aires, Argentina, afternoon.

The White House has stated that Obama will not formally meet with ailing longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

With files from CBC News