ARI SHAPIRO, HOST: President Obama will visit Havana, Cuba, next month. When he does, it will be an exclamation point to the diplomatic overtures that ended Cuba's isolation 14 months ago. The president and first lady will follow the tens of thousands of other Americans who have visited the island since then. But the two Cuban-Americans hoping to be the republican nominee for president are speaking out against the trip. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Obama will be the first American president in nearly 90 years to set foot in the Cuban capital. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes says the last was Calvin Coolidge.
BEN RHODES: Coolidge traveled there on a battleship, so the optic will be quite different from the get-go here
HORSLEY: The decades-old Cuban embargo is still in effect. But over the last 14 months, the Obama administration has taken steps to relax travel and trade restrictions. Since then, authorized visits to Cuba have jumped more than 50 percent, and they're likely to climb further with the resumption of scheduled airline service later this year. Rhodes, who helped broker the diplomatic thought, hopes to make more progress with the president's visit.
RHODES: What we want is to take all this opening, all this activity, all this interest from businesses and state and local governments and the Cubans, and start to make it concrete.
HORSLEY: Like concrete, the administration hopes its policy changes will be difficult for the next president to undo. News of the president's trip was welcomed by business people who want to see stronger ties between the U.S. and Cuba.
JAMES WILLIAMS: We're elated, you know? You're seeing history being made right in front of our very eyes.
HORSLEY: James Williams heads a group called Engage Cuba that's working to end the embargo. He notes that while Obama will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, he'll also be meeting with Cuban dissidents and entrepreneurs from the country's nascent private sector. Polls show a majority of Americans, including a narrow majority of Cuban Americans, favor the renewal of diplomatic ties but not the two Cuban-Americans running for president. Ted Cruz told CNN it's a mistake for Obama to visit Havana while the Castro's are still in power.
TED CRUZ: My family has seen firsthand the evil and the oppression in Cuba, and we need to have a president that stands up to our enemies.
HORSLEY: Marco Rubio agrees. He told CNN the administration's moves have not produced the hoped-for reforms on the Cuban side.
MARCO RUBIO: A year and two months after the opening to Cuba, the Cuban government remains as repressive as ever, but now they have access to millions if not billions of dollars in resources that they didn't have access to before this opening.
HORSLEY: The White House concedes Cuba still has a long way to go to improve its human rights record and open its economy. Rhodes insists that's an argument for, not against, the presidential visit.
RHODES: We believe the best way to try to push this forward is for the president to go. We feel very strongly that engagement is a far preferable way of pursuing the things that America cares about than isolation.
HORSLEY: The opening to Cuba has already improved U.S. ties with the rest of Latin America. Obama also plans to visit Argentina next month and meet with that country's new president. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.