WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama alone will decide whom to meet with when he lands in Cuba on a history-making trip later this month, the White House said Friday as it sought to dispel any notion that Cuban officials would have a hand in choreographing the president's activities on the island.
"That's a decision that we'll make on our own, without any sort of negotiation with the Cubans," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Earnest was responding to news reports that Secretary of State John Kerry had canceled a solo trip to Cuba before the president's March 21-22 visit, due to disagreements with Cuban officials over which dissidents will get an audience with Obama. Obama has set meeting with pro-democracy activists on the communist-run island nation as a condition for the trip.
Kerry considered making the trip, Earnest said, but it wasn't scheduled. Kerry instead will accompany Obama to Cuba, making moot a separate trip by Kerry, Earnest said.
He was adamant that Obama intends to meet with some of Cuba's political dissidents during the brief visit.
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"The guest list for that meeting will be determined solely by the White House," Earnest said. "There's no real dispute about this. The president will meet with whomever he chooses to meet with."
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro moved more than a year ago to end decades of hostile relations between their formerly estranged countries. Since then, the U.S. and Cuba have reopened embassies in Washington and Havana and have taken steps to restore commercial air travel and loosen other restrictions.
Kerry spoke by telephone Friday with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to discuss Obama's trip.
Kerry expressed disappointment that he couldn't visit the island for a human rights dialogue the countries planned to hold this week, according to State Department spokesman John Kirby. He cited "scheduling issues" for the cancellation, as well as the heavy burden on the new embassy connected with handling two major visits in short succession.
Republicans and some Democrats have criticized Obama's plans to go to Cuba, calling it an undeserved reward for communist leaders who continue to oppress their people.
Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Havana in nearly 90 years, following President Calvin Coolidge's trip there in 1928.