Obama said to plan historic trip to Cuba next month
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."