As Obama visits, Cuba's top diplomat open to hearing criticism

Story highlights

  • Obama arrives in Cuba Sunday to begin historic two-day visit
  • "Although we might have profound differences, we have many values we share," says top Cuban diplomat
  • Obama is scheduled to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro and anti-government dissidents

Havana, Cuba (CNN)Cuba's top negotiator with the United States welcomed the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama to the island on Sunday and said officials there would listen with "respect" to any criticisms of the communist-run government.

"We are neighbors. Although we might have profound differences, we have many values we share," said Josefina Vidal, the general director of U.S. affairs at Cuba's Foreign Ministry.
"Your model isn't perfect. Ours isn't," she said. "But it's up to our decisions to make our model more perfect. We can speak openly, without the 'You will change us or I will change you.'"
    Obama will arrive via Air Force One on Sunday afternoon at Havana's Jose Martí International Airport to begin an intense and historic two-day visit to the island that includes meetings with Cuban President Raul Castro and anti-government dissidents.
    During the visit, Obama will tour the colonial streets of Old Havana, meet with Cuban small-business owners and watch a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team.
    Obama will be accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters.
    The cultural events, U.S. diplomats say, are the administration's attempt to connect with the Cuban people and counter the longtime portrayal in Cuban state media of the United States as a hostile force lurking just off Cuba's shores.
    On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Havana released a video that showed Cuban comedian Panfilo joking with Obama about his visit and some of the absurdities of life in Cuba.
    U.S. diplomats say the highlight of the trip will be when Obama delivers an address to the Cuban people on his new policy of engagement. He is expected to extend an olive branch to the Cuban people and also take the Cuban government to task for the lack of civil liberties on the island.
    Obama has said he wants to cement ties with Cuba so that whoever follows him as president could not reverse the policy change. Several Republican candidates, including front-runner Donald Trump, have said they would close the newly reopened U.S. Embassy and take a tougher line with the Cuban government.
    Vidal said that Cuban officials hope whoever is the next president will continue Obama's policy of engagement.
    "No one can say now how this next president will think or make decisions on issues concerning Cuba and the U.S.," she said. "What I would hope is that whoever is president conducts policy that reflects the majority of those who vote for him."
    Vidal said while not all Cuban officials support warming relations, and some continue to view the United States with suspicion, she feels that if he were alive, the thaw would be welcomed by one icon of the Cuban revolution: Che Guevara.
    Guevara, one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution, who was killed in Bolivia by U.S.-backed forces, was famous for his disdain for capitalism.
    But Vidal said that wouldn't have prevented Guevara from wanting improved relations with his old foe.
    "He wasn't that different from us, to think that it's beneficial," Vidal said. "Normal relations means you are ready to respect the other party's differences and have a peaceful coexistence."