Barack Obama and Raul Castro shake hands
President Barack Obama (L) and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro (C) shake hands as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (R) looks onPanama Presidency/Handout via Reuters

US President Barack Obama will become the first sitting president to visit Cuba in 88 years as relations between the two nations thaw. Obama is scheduled to meet with Raul Castro, president of the totalitarian communist island to mark a new chapter in relations which he first announced some 15 months ago.

The president will be accompanied by the First Lady, Michelle Obama, as well as their two daughters, Malia and Sasha. The US leader is not expected to meet with Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years and handed the reins over to his brother in 2008.

Obama will deliver a speech to Cubans and will also meet with members of civil society, including human rights activists.

Earlier this week, the White House said in a statement: "The President will work to build on the progress we have made toward normalisation of relations with Cuba – advancing commercial and people-to-people ties that can improve the well-being of the Cuban people, and expressing our support for human rights."

Despite being applauded for building bridges with Cuba, Obama has also faced criticism, with House Speaker Paul Ryan pointing to the Castro regime's human rights abuses. "Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the president will bring up the need for reform during his visit," he said.

Washington broke off diplomatic ties with Havana in 1961 and imposed a trade embargo – estimated to have cost the US economy $1.2bn (£829m) a year – after Cuba's revolution led to its state turning to communism. The conflict saw Fidel Castro and his supporters overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was backed by the US corporations, the US government and the Mafia.

Ileana Yarza
Ileana Yarza reacts while reading a letter sent to her by President ObamaUeslei Marcelino/Reuters

In July 2015, Cuba reopened its Washington embassy and the US did the same in Havana just one month later. Speaking before his historic handshake with his Cuban counterpart in Panama last year, Obama said: "The Cold War has been over for a long time," adding "I'm not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born."

The two-day trip will see Obama attend a baseball game between Cuba's national team and the Tampa Bay Rays. He will also take in the sites of the Caribbean island nation.

Obama has even said that he hopes he has time to have a cup of Cuban coffee with 76-year-old Ileana Yarza, who invited the president at her home in the capital. Yarza extended the invite last month and the president sent her a personal response "by way of the first direct mail flight between the United States and Cuba in over 50 years".

Thanking Yarza for her support, Obama said that he hoped the note would serve "as a reminder of a bright new chapter in the relationship between our two nations".