POLITICS

Obama: 2016 visit to Cuba possible, but only if meeting with dissidents can occur

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015 file photo, U.S. President Barack Obama stands with Cuba's President Raul Castro before a bilateral meeting at the United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015 file photo, U.S. President Barack Obama stands with Cuba's President Raul Castro before a bilateral meeting at the United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Barack Obama hopes to visit Cuba in 2016, but only if the conditions exist for meeting with dissidents on the island, he said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News released on Monday.

"If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody," Obama said in the interview, granted in the run-up to the first anniversary of the historic announcement of the normalizing of relations between the United States and the communist island.

"I've made very clear in my conversations directly with President (Raúl) Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba," the U.S. president said.

Obama said that he is "very much interested" in visiting Cuba in 2016 and strongly suggested that he would make a decision on the matter within "the next several months."

The president said that if he believes that progress is occurring in freedom and the possibilities for the average Cuban, he would like to use an official visit as a way to emphasize that progress.

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But, if backsliding is detected, there is no reason for him to go, he said, adding that he is not interested in validating the status quo on the island.

On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama and Raúl Castro announced the start of a process to normalize relations that resulted, last July, in the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington after a rupture of more than 50 years.

Last week, the two countries took another step toward full normalization with the announcement of an agreement to reestablish direct postal service via a pilot transportation plan for mail and packages.

The two nations are also negotiating accords to establish regular commercial flights between the United States and Cuba and, in late November, representatives of the two governments met in Washington to discuss immigration and the fight against drug trafficking.

Amid the crisis of thousands of Cuban refugees who are currently stranded in Central America, Cuba is urging the United States to end the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and the accompanying "wet foot, dry foot" policy that favors Cubans who manage to make it to U.S. territory, albeit illegally.

However, Washington to date has denied that there will be any changes in that policy.

Another issue that continues to impede the full normalization of relations is the U.S. economic embargo that has been in place against Cuba and the lifting of which may only be done by the U.S. Congress, although Obama has taken executive action to ease travel restrictions and some commercial transactions with the island. 

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