Despite differences with Cuba, Obama announces he’ll visit the island in March

Miami Herald

By: Mimi Whitefield

President Barack Obama has made it official: He is going to Cuba for a March 21-22 visit.

“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 Thursday morning.

While Cuba has responded to some recent areas of U.S. concern, it hasn’t made much progress on another U.S. priority: improving its human rights record.

“We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly,” Obama said. “America will always stand for human rights around the world.”

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

“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 in previous talks she said the two countries had agreed not to intervene in each other’s internal affairs.

Although Cuban-Americans in South Florida have become more accepting of engagement with Cuba in recent years, one of their main concerns remains respect for human rights on the island.

Carlos Naya, who came to the United States when he was 12 years old and is now 61, sees the visit as a step back in foreign relations. “The president's visit will have no impact whatsoever. As long as there is no freedom of expressions how can anything change? If the people have to function under the same rules in which they have functioned for the last sixty years, what is a visit going to do?, “ asked Naya, who lives in Miami.

South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the Obama visit “will only legitimize the Castros’ repressive behavior.”

But other Cuban-Americans were more sanguine. “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.

Hoping to build on progress made toward normalizing relations with Cuba after a more than five-decade deep freeze, the president said he and the first lady will visit the island March 21-22. It’s the first and only time a sitting U.S. president has made the trip since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928. He arrived in a battleship to attend the Sixth Annual International Conference of American States.

During the trip, Obama will meet with Cuban leader Raúl Castro who he first met face-to-face at an historic meeting in Panama at the Summit of the Americas last April. At the previous Summit of the Americas, Obama was under pressure from countries around the Americas to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba and the U.S. policy of ostracizing Cuba had isolated the United States in the region.

“An official presidential visit is the height of US 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 where the first family will be attending the game.

The White House said that the president will stop in Cuba before continuing to Argentina for a March 23-24 visit. In Buenos Aires, the Obama family will meet with Argentina’s new president Mauricio Macri to discuss his reform agenda and the defense of human rights in the Americas.

Since Obama and Castro and shocked the world on Dec. 17, 2014 by putting Cold War animosities behind them and saying they would begin working toward normalization of relations, an Obama trip to Cuba has been on the back burner.

Obama and administration officials had said the president wanted to go but also 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 investment on the island.

As the trip approaches, there have been advances on the latter two priorities. Earlier this week the United States and Cuba signed a civil aviation accord that will pave the way for regularly scheduled airlines service between the two countries to begin, probably by fall.

U.S. and Cuban officials also were meeting in Washington Thursday on the second day of talks aimed at understanding each other’s economies and regulations better so businesses in Cuba and the United States can better take advantage of the commercial opening that Obama has announced.

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 rates, however, are still among the lowest in the hemisphere.

Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser who took part in the secret talks that led to the rapprochement, noted such progress Thursday in an article that appeared in Medium, a White House web platform.

“We’ve already seen indications of how increased engagement can improve the lives of the Cuban people. Cuba’s nascent private sector  —  from restaurant owners to shopkeepers  —  has benefited from increased travel from the American people. Increased remittances to Cuba from the United States has helped Cuban families,” he wrote.

“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. The Cuban government has taken some steps to fulfill its commitment to expand access to the Internet, expanding wireless hot spots and announcing an initial broadband connection.”

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 Engage Cuba, a public policy group that supports normalization of relations with Cuba, said: “We wholeheartedly endorse President Obama’s decision to visit Cuba. This historic presidential visit will benefit U.S. interests as well as the Cuban people. And it is a vital step towards reestablishing normal ties with our Cuban neighbors.’’