WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will crown his historic rapprochement with Cuba with a visit to the island as soon as March, the first for a sitting United States president in nearly 90 years, administration sources said Wednesday.
The White House would announce on Thursday the details of a multi-stop presidential trip to Latin America — including Cuba — in the coming weeks, said senior administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity because the official announcement had not been made, USA Today reported.
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 maintained by 10 U.S. presidents in 2014.
Obama has made no secret about wanting to visit the communist island, but said in an interview last year that “conditions have to be right.” Those conditions included a visible change in the lives, liberties and economic possibilities 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. The Obama administration has published a series of rule changes to allow U.S. businesses to export products to Cuban entrepreneurs. The two sides reached an aviation agreement that will allow for regularly-scheduled commercial flights and 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 Cubans deemed political prisoners were detained or arrested by the government, according to the Havana-based Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation. That figure is only slightly lower than the 8,899 politically-motivated arrests in 2014.
Opponents of Obama’s Cuba opening say those arrests prove that Obama’s strategy has already failed. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, both Cuban-Americans running for president, have said they’ve seen no change inCuba’s repressive regime. Rubio has called the changes “one-sided concessions,” Cruz has called the opening an “unconditional surrender” and both have vowed to cut diplomatic ties if they’re elected.
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. The U.S. maintains an economic embargo on Cuba that restricts most trade and travel with Cuba, something that only Congress can fully rescind. Earlier this week, Rodrigo Malmierca DÍaz, 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, 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 believes Obama is visiting the island now, rather than closer to the end of his term.
The first and only sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928, according to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. Coolidge rode into Havana aboard the battleship U.S.S. Texas on a mission to show good faith between the United States 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, but that was more than two decades after he left the Oval Office.