Obama said to plan his­toric trip to Cuba next month

The Pak Banker - - BUSINESS -

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama will travel to Cuba next month in a his­tory-mak­ing re­set 55 years af­ter the U.S. broke diplo­matic ties with the Com­mu­nist is­land na­tion amid the angst of the Cold War, ac­cord­ing to an ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial.

The trip, set to be an­nounced Thurs­day by the White House, fol­lows years of diplo­matic ma­neu­ver­ing and months of fi­nal ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and the regime of Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro. It was a top item on Obama's wish list be­fore he leaves of­fice, even as Cuba con­tin­ues to draw con­dem­na­tion for hu­man-rights abuses and the U.S. Congress re­sists lift­ing the trade em­bargo against Cuba.

Obama will be only the se­cond sit­ting U.S. pres­i­dent to visit Cuba. The first was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. For­mer Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter vis­ited Cuba in 2011, the first such visit since Fidel Cas­tro rose to power in the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion of 1959. Cuba will be a stop on a trip by the pres­i­dent to Latin Amer­ica, the of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the an­nounce­ment hasn't been made pub­lic. The pre­cise dates weren't pro­vided. The planned Cuba trip, ear­lier re­ported by ABC News, fol­lows two decades of dra­mat­i­cally shift­ing pub­lic opin­ion. A Gallup Poll con­ducted Feb. 3-7 found for the first time a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans, 54 per­cent, now see Cuba fa­vor­ably. Amer­i­cans are di­vided along par­ti­san lines, with 73 per­cent of Democrats and 34 per­cent of Repub­li­cans hold­ing a fa­vor­able view. When Gallup asked the fa­vor­a­bil­ity ques­tion in 1996, the year Congress passed a law tight­en­ing the em­bargo on Cuba, 81 per­cent of Amer­i­cans held an un­fa­vor­able view.

Op­po­nents of eas­ing re­la­tions with Cuba were quick to ob­ject to Obama's planned trip. "It is ab­so­lutely shame­ful that Obama is re­ward­ing the Cas­tros with a visit to Cuba by a sit­ting Amer­i­can pres­i­dent since their reign of ter­ror be­gan," said Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ileana Ros-Le­hti­nen, a Cuban-Amer­i­can Repub­li­can from Florida, in a state­ment. "For more than 50 years Cubans have been flee­ing the Cas­tro regime yet the coun­try which grants them refuge, the United States, has now de­cided to quite lit­er­ally em­brace their op­pres­sors."

Sen­a­tor Marco Ru­bio of Florida, a Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and the son of Cuban im­mi­grants, told CNN that if elected, he wouldn't travel to Cuba if the coun­try isn't free. "The Cuban govern­ment re­mains as op­pres­sive as ever," he said. In De­cem­ber 2014, Obama an­nounced that the U.S. would move to­ward nor­mal­iz­ing re­la­tions with for­mer Soviet ally. The an­nounce­ment fol­lowed more than a year of se­cret talks that in­volved Pope Fran­cis and in­cluded se­cur­ing the re­lease by Cuba of a U.S. govern­ment con­trac­tor, Alan Gross, who had been held for five years in Cuban prison. The U.S. has been press­ing Cuba to make it eas­ier for its own cit­i­zens to freely ac­cess in­for­ma­tion on­line and en­gage in busi­ness.

Last May, the State Depart­ment took Cuba off the list of state spon­sors of ter- ror. In Au­gust, the U.S. re­opened an em­bassy in Ha­vana for the first time since the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1961 cut diplo­matic ties with Fidel Cas­tro's new regime. And a new agree­ment means air­lines this year can start fly­ing sched­uled ser­vice be­tween Cuba and any city in the U.S. for the first time in more than a half cen­tury. Un­til now, only char­ter flights be­tween the two coun­tries have been per­mit­ted. Obama's over­tures to­ward Cuba be­gan in 2009, just months into his pres­i­dency, when he an­nounced a lift­ing of re­stric­tions on fam­ily vis­its and re­mit­tances to Cuba to in­crease hu­man­i­tar­ian re­sources and ex­change of in­for­ma­tion be­tween sep­a­rated fam­ily mem­bers.

Still, the U.S. em­bargo has per­sisted, even as Obama has ar­gued it is a relic of a time gone by and hasn't ac­com­plished what it set out to do. Cuba is still a touchy sub­ject with many Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing older Cuban emi­gres in South Florida, and the em­bargo has been a long-stand­ing lit­mus test in Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics. Obama has been press­ing Congress to lift the U.S. em­bargo on Cuba. In his fi­nal State of the Union speech in Jan­uary, he said that "fifty years of iso­lat­ing Cuba had failed to pro­mote democ­racy, and set us back in Latin Amer­ica. That's why we re­stored diplo­matic re­la­tions, opened the door to travel and com­merce, po­si­tioned our­selves to im­prove the lives of the Cuban peo­ple. So if you want to con­sol­i­date our lead­er­ship and cred­i­bil­ity in the hemi­sphere, rec­og­nize that the Cold War is over: Lift the em­bargo."

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