WASHINGTON –– President Barack Obama today announced an historic visit to Cuba next month, speeding up the thaw in relations between the two Cold War former foes but igniting opposition from Republicans at home.
In the first American presidential trip to the Caribbean nation in nearly 90 years, Obama will meet with Cuba’s President Raul Castro, entrepreneurs, and “Cubans from different walks of life” during the trip on March 21 and 22, the White House said.
After decades of animosity following Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the two countries agreed in 2014 to move to reopen ties.
It was diplomatic feat that is likely to be a highlight of Obama’s foreign policy legacy along with the reaching of a nuclear deal with another long-time American foe, Iran.
Although the United States economic embargo on Cuba remains in place, a presidential visit carries huge symbolic value and prestige.
“Next month, I’ll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama wrote on Twitter.
The Havana visit is likely to spark debate on Cuba policy in the campaign for the November 8 American presidential election, particularly in the swing voting state of Florida, where many anti-Castro Cuban-Americans live.
“Pitiful that Obama rewards Castros with visit to Cuba while conditions for the Cuban people are getting worse,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican congresswoman from south Florida.
Two candidates in the Republican race, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are conservative sons of Cuban immigrants and have criticized Obama for renewing ties with Cuba.
Obama said that while the United States still had concerns about human rights in Cuba, it had already made significant progress in renewing relationships.
“We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world,”
Obama had previously said he would visit the neighbouring Communist-ruled nation if he were able to meet with political dissidents. The last sitting American president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
His administration has taken steps to expand commerce with the island nation, only 145 kilometres from Florida.
Tourism has already surged. Airbnb, an online home-rental site, said American rentals of homes in Cuba were booming. The countries have agreed to restore airline flights, and companies ranging from tractor manufacturers to telecommunications firms are assessing the market.
Obama still seeks to pressure American lawmakers to remove the decades-old embargo on Cuba but Republicans control Congress and are unlikely to act soon.
First lady Michelle Obama will also go on the trip, which is taking place during the president’s final year in office.