Rubio says Obama's Cuba visit 'tells Cuban people we stand with their oppressors'

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Shortly after President Barack Obama announced that he plans to visit Cuba in March, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida assailed the decision.

Rubio, a Cuban-American who long has called for a hard line on the island nation as long as the Castro brothers remain in power, wrote a letter to Obama saying that his planned visit to Cuba would send a worrisome message to the world that the U.S. is not standing up for its principles.

The GOP presidential hopeful said that Obama should not be the guest of the Castro regime because the communist country’s leaders continue to violate human rights, provide sanctuary to fugitives who are wanted in the U.S. and imprison people because of their views critical of the government, among other things.

“If you proceed with this visit, you will further confirm what the Castro regime has learned throughout its negotiations with your administration: That you are willing to give up all the leverage the United States has in exchange for virtually nothing,” Rubio wrote.

“You will send the message to the oppressed Cuban people that you stand with their oppressors,” Rubio said. “You will send the message to the Western Hemisphere and the rest of the world, especially our enemies, that the United States can grow tired of standing up for our national security interests and principles.‎”

Obama said Thursday he'll raise human rights issues and other U.S. concerns with Cuban President Raúl Castro during the history-making visit.

The two-day visit in mid-March will be a watershed moment in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, as Obama will become the first sitting American 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.

In a White House press briefing on Thursday, spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration would like the U.S.-Cuba embargo lifted.

But until that happens, Earnest said, the White House will continue to look at ways within the law to ease restrictions on trade and travel.

Earnest said the administration will be rolling out changes in the coming weeks after consulting with different agencies, such as the U.S. Treasury Department, that handle the various aspects of travel and trade.

Other Cuban-American lawmakers also voiced their objection to Obama's visit.

"This will mark the first time a U.S. president is visiting a dictatorship in Latin America since Lyndon Johnson's 1968 visit to Nicaragua, and it’s the first presidential visit to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928," said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, on Thursday.

"Since Castro seized power, nine American Presidents – Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush – did not rush to the island to shake hands with an oppressive dictator. They instead stood firmly against a regime that represses its people’s freedoms and blatantly violates human rights just 90 miles from our shore."

Meanwhile, groups that have pushed for normalized relations with Cuba and the lifting of the embargo praised Obama for moving ahead with plans to visit Cuba. They argue that the decades-old embargo did not succeed in bringing democratic reform to Cuba and did not help Cubans on the island realize a better life.

“With his visit, the president will have a uniquely powerful opportunity to share his vision for a brighter tomorrow with the Cuban people,” said in a statement Ric Herrero, the executive director of #CubaNow, which supports lifting the embargo. “While some may politicize the president’s trip as premature or argue that the Cuban government does not yet deserve it, it is an argument that misses the point.”

“Both sides of the embargo debate should be able to agree that there is no single more powerful promoter of American values than an American president," Herrero said. "And there are none more deserving of the chance to hear them than the 11 million Cubans living on the island.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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