Despite differences with Cuba, Obama says now is the time to visit the island

Video: Hear the plans for Obama's historic trip to Cuba

Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, laid out the plans for President Obama's March trip to Cuba and revealed that the president will visit Argentina.
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Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, laid out the plans for President Obama's March trip to Cuba and revealed that the president will visit Argentina.

A thicket of issues still separates Cuba and the United States and a U.S. president hasn’t set foot on Cuban soil in nearly 90 years but President Barack Obama said Thursday now is the best time for him to visit the island.

Obama and the first lady will travel to Cuba March 21-22 before heading to a two-day visit to Argentina. The last and only time a sitting U.S. president visited Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. He arrived in a battleship to attend the Sixth Annual International Conference of American States.

During the historic visit, the president plans to talk not only with the Cuban leadership but also reach out to Cuban entrepreneurs, dissidents, “Cubans from different walks of life,” said Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser to the president who took part in secret negotiations leading to the surprise announcement on Dec. 17, 2014 that the two former adversaries would work toward normalizing relations.

“I’ll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people,” the president announced on Twitter early Thursday. “We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world.”

Details of the trip haven’t been fully worked out, but Obama is expected to meet with Cuban leader Raúl Castro but not his brother Fidel.

Since rapprochement began, embassies have reopened,many rounds of talks on issues such as migration have been held in Washington and Havana and new regulations have taken effect that permit more U.S. travel to and commerce with Cuba even though the embargo remains in place. But critics question if Cuba has done enough to warrant a presidential visit.

Obama has said he wanted to see progress in Cuba’s human rights record, access to more information on the Internet for Cubans, and a bigger role for private business.

That progress has been mixed with human rights the most divisive issue, but the president decided he should go sooner rather than later, Rhodes said.

“The president’s judgment was that, number one, going to Cuba was an important step forward in signaling this new beginning between our two countries and peoples; and also importantly that going to Cuba could help enlarge this space that benefits the Cuban people and increases ties between our countries,” said Rhodes.

Going earlier in the year instead of toward the end of the president’s term also allows time “to get more done both around his visit and in the days and months that follow,” said Rhodes. The United States, he noted, has been reviewing and changing regulations governing travel and commerce, and other changes could come in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Rhodes said the United States would also like to see Cuba take concrete steps to “allow those regulatory steps to take hold.”

Josefina Vidal, who heads the U.S. section in Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, said that the president would be welcomed by the government and Cuban people “with our traditional hospitality.”

“This visit will be one more step toward an improvement in relations between Cuba and the United States,” she said during a news conference in Havana. “Cuba is open to conversations with the United States on any theme, including human rights,” she said. But she said Cuba has a different concept of human rights than the United States.

Cuba’s human rights records remains a cause of concern for the exile community, but the reaction to Obama’s visit is no longer as monolithic as it might once have been.

It was an insult to those who have long held the belief that a U.S. president shouldn’t visit Cuba until the Castros are no longer in power and there is a democratic transition. “Totally unacceptable for the president of the United States to reward a dictatorial regime with an historic visit when human rights abuses endure and democracy continues to be shunned,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.

Rather than improve things for the Cuban people, Obama’s visit “will only legitimize the Castros’ repressive behavior,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

But for others, the trip is good news. “Coming on the heels of the pope’s visit to Cuba, the president’s trip shines the spotlight on the opening of Cuba. This is the final symbol of the policy shift and the next logical step in fostering the relationship,” said Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer who represents some of the companies trying to do business with Cuba under the Obama opening.

“President Obama is going to Cuba to cap off what he and his supporters believe was one of his most positive foreign policy accomplishments,” said Mel Levitsky, an international policy professor at the University of Michigan. “While there are a number of Cuban-Americans who disagree with the re-establishment of relations with Cuba, that number is diminishing as the younger generation begins to step out front.”

Economic issues are ultimately connected to human rights issues because they improve the lives of the Cuban people, Rhodes said. In the White House’s view, there has been progress on the economic front and improvement in information access.

Earlier this week, the United States and Cuba signed a civil aviation accord that will pave the way for regularly scheduled airline service between the two countries to begin, probably by fall.

U.S. and Cuban officials also met in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss better understanding each other’s economies and regulations and to take advantage of the new opening. Cuban Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca led a large trade delegation to the national capital this week.

On the Internet front, Cuba recently announced that it was introducing a pilot program to bring broadband Internet to Cuban households and it has continued to roll out more public Wi-Fi hotspots around the island. Internet access, however, is still among the lowest in the hemisphere.

“Openings for American companies also hold the potential of improving the lives of ordinary Cubans  —  for instance, American companies will be enabling travelers to stay in Cuban homes and setting up a factory that will provide equipment for farmers,” said Rhodes in an article that appeared Thursday in Medium, a White House web platform.

So far, the only specific meeting for Obama announced by the White House is the one with Raúl Castro. They had their first face-to-face sit-down at an historic meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last April. At the previous Summit, Obama was under pressure from countries around the Americas to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba. The U.S. policy of ostracizing Cuba had isolated the United States in the region.

“An official presidential visit is the height of U.S. diplomacy on the world stage, and this trip will be the ultimate gesture for President Obama in elevating the U.S. image in Latin America,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.

The president’s timetable will also put him in Cuba when the Tampa Bay Rays play Cuba’s national baseball team March 22, but it is unclear whether the first family will be attending the game.

A discussion of Cuba has been all but absent in presidential debates so far. But it came up at a CNN town hall Wednesday. Asked if he would go to Cuba, Republican White House hopeful and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio responded: “Not if it’s not a free Cuba.”

When GOP hopeful Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also a Cuban-American, was later asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper if it’s an option he would consider, he said, “It is not as long as the Castros are in power.

“I was saddened to hear the news but I wasn’t surprised. This was foreshadowed for a long time,” he said. “President Obama’s foreign policy has consistently alienated our friends.”

But Rhodes said regardless of who next occupies the White House, “We want to make this policy change irreversible. And that means we want links between Cubans and Americans, and the links between our businesses and the engagement between our countries to gain such momentum that there’s an inevitability to the opening.”

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