Obama will make historic visit to Cuba as soon as March, sources say – USA TODAY
WASHINGTONÂ â President Obama will crown his historic rapprochement with Cuba with a visit to the island as soon as March,Â the first for a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years, administration sources said Wednesday.
The White House will announce on Thursday the details of a multi-stop presidential trip to Latin AmericaÂ â including CubaÂ â in the coming weeks, said seniorÂ administration officialsÂ speaking on condition of anonymity because the official announcement had not been made. The tripÂ was first reported byÂ ABC News and Reuters.
The trip would be the culmination of 14 months of work to normalize relations between the two countries since Obama broke the diplomatic freeze between the two governments that had been maintainedÂ by 10 U.S. presidents in 2014.
Obama has made no secret about wanting to visit the communist island, but said inÂ an interview last year that “conditions have to be right.” Those conditions included a visible change in the lives, liberties and economic possibilitiesÂ of ordinary Cubans. “If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there. I’m not interested in just validating the status quo,” he told Yahoo News.
Embassies have reopened in Washington and Havana.Â The Obama administration has published a series of rule changes to allow U.S. businesses to export products to Cuban entrepreneurs.Â The two sides reached an aviation agreement that will allow for regularly-scheduledÂ commercial flights andÂ U.S. cellular companies are providing roaming service on the island.
Yet the Cubans have not fully embraced the openings created by Obama.
Human rights organizations say political persecution remains an everyday occurrence on the island. In 2015, the first full year of the new relationship with Cuba, 8,616 CubansÂ deemed political prisoners were detained or arrested by the government, according to the Havana-basedÂ Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation. That figure is only slightly lower than the 8,899 politically-motivated arrests in 2014.
Opponents ofÂ Obama’s Cuba opening say those arrests prove that Obama’s strategy has already failed.Â Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, both Cuban-AmericansÂ running for president, have said they’ve seen no change in Cuba’s repressive regime.Â Rubio has called the changes “one-sided concessions,”Â Cruz has called the opening an “unconditional surrender” and both have vowed to cut diplomatic ties if they’re elected.
During a CNN town hall on Wednesday night, Rubio said Obama should be demanding more democratic reforms by the Cuban government before agreeing to visit. HeÂ noted that Cuba still harbors fugitives from U.S. justice.
“The Cuban government remains as oppressive as ever,” Rubio said.
At the same town hall, Cruz said Obama should be “pushing for a free Cuba” rather than visiting the island.
“My family has seen first-hand the evil and oppression in Cuba,” he said.
Cuban officials also say that they need to see more changes from the U.S. before the two sides can have a fully normalized relationship.Â The U.S. maintains an economic embargo on Cuba that restricts most trade and travelÂ with Cuba, something that only Congress can fully rescind. Earlier this week, Rodrigo Malmierca DÃaz, Cuba’s minister for foreign trade and investment, said during a speech in Washington that the embargo remains a difficult obstacle for the future relationship.
That helps explain why thousands of Americans, including business owners and politicians,Â have traveled to Cuba since the opening was announced, but only a handful of trade deals have been finalized. And that’s why John Kavulich believesÂ Obama is visiting the island now, rather than closer to the end of his term.
“(The Cubans) haveÂ been brilliant in understanding the dynamics of a buyer’s market and a seller’s market,” said Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a group that supports Obama’s opening. “They felt that the Obama administration was going to keep opening and opening, but theyÂ had to determine when they reached his limit where he’s got to see some results.”
Obama’s visit to the island, Kavulich said, would be that moment.
Ric Herrero, executive director of #CubaNow, a Miami-based group advocating for fully normalized relations and an end to the embargo, said that too many will be caught up with the politics of the moment and focusing only on possible interactions between Obama and the Castro brothers. Instead, he said the trip will mean so much more to the people of Cuba who are seeing a massive economic and political transition going on around them but don’t yet know what it means to them.
“Any speech Obama gives in Cuba will be watched by everybody in Cuba on state TVÂ and will have a huge impact on the lives of students and future politicians who, in one way or another, will be molded by that message,” Herrero said. “If this trip was just about Castro, it would be hard to argue that the visit would be worth it.Â But this is an opportunity to go far beyond the Castros.”
The firstÂ and onlyÂ sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928, according to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.Â Coolidge rode into Havana aboard the battleship U.S.S. Texas on a mission to show good faith between the United StatesÂ and Latin America during an era of frequent American interventions throughout the region. Jimmy Carter also visited the island on two trips in 2002 and 2011 to meet with the Castro brothers,Â but that was more than two decades after he left the Oval Office.
Contributing: David Jackson