WASHINGTON – President Obama said Thursday he'll raise human rights issues and other U.S. concerns with Cuban President Raul Castro during a history-making visit to the communist island nation.
The brief visit in mid-March will mark a watershed moment in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, making Obama the first sitting U.S. president to set foot on the island in nearly seven decades. While in the country, Obama plans to meet with groups advocating for change in Cuba, a condition the president had laid out publicly for such a trip.
"We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly," Obama wrote on Twitter in announcing the visit. "America will always stand for human rights around the world."
Cuban Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca, on a visit to Washington, told The Associated Press that Obama's visit is good news for Cuba.
"The president will be welcomed," he said in Spanish.
The U.S. was estranged from the communist nation estranged for over half a century until Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro moved toward rapprochement more than a year ago. Since then, the nations have reopened embassies in Washington and Havana and have moved to restore commercial air travel, with a presidential visit seen as a key next step toward bridging the divide.
Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the president will carry the message that the U.S. and Cuba need not be defined by their "complicated and difficult history." He said the U.S. wants to expand opportunities for U.S. businesses in Cuba, facilitate travel for Americans and coax Cuba's government into passing those benefits on to the public.
"Cuba will not change overnight," Rhodes wrote in a Medium blog post. But he said the guiding principle behind the visit is "taking steps that will improve the lives of the Cuban people."
Rhodes noted the ultimate aim is to persuade Congress to lift the trade embargo -- Havana's biggest request of the U.S. Although short-term prospects have seemed unlikely, a Republican congressman just back from leading a delegation of lawmakers to Cuba said he believed legislation ending the embargo could pass Congress by the end of the year.
"The momentum is growing," said Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota.
In addition to meeting with Castro, Obama will interact with members of Cuban "civil society," the White House said, referring to activists that advocate for various social causes. Prior to announcing the trip, Obama had said he'd only travel to Cuba if he could speak to all kinds of groups -- including those that oppose the Castro government.
From Cuba, Obama will travel to Argentina, where he'll meet with new President Mauricio Macri, the White House said.
Word of his travel plans drew immediate resistance from opponents of warmer ties with Cuba -- including Republican presidential candidates.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father came to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1950s, said Obama shouldn't visit while the Castro family remains in power. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another child of Cuban immigrants, lambasted the president for visiting what he called an "anti-American communist dictatorship."
"Probably not going to invite me," Rubio said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican born in Cuba, called the visit "absolutely shameful." But Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who traveled to Havana with Secretary of State John Kerry last year for the U.S. Embassy's re-opening, cheered the announcement.
"For Cubans accustomed to watching their government sputter down the last mile of socialism in a `57 Chevy, imagine what they'll think when they see Air Force One," Flake said.
With less than a year left in office, Obama has been eager to make rapid progress on restoring economic and diplomatic ties to cement warming relations with Cuba begun by his administration. Obama and supporters of the detente argue the decades-old embargo has failed to bring about desired change on the island 90 miles south of Florida.
Officials didn't immediately specify what changed in the last few weeks to clear the way for the trip. But on Tuesday, the two nations signed a deal restoring commercial air traffic as early as later this year, eliminating a key barrier that isolated Cuban-Americans from their families for generations. A day earlier, the Obama administration approved the first U.S. factory in Cuba since Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and nationalized billions of dollars of U.S. property.
The last sitting president to visit Havana was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Harry Truman traveled in 1948 to the U.S.-controlled Guantanamo Bay and its naval base on the island's southeast end.