Eight months after U.S. reopened embassy, Obama to visit Cuba

President Obama will travel to Cuba in late March, just eight months after the United States formally reopened its embassy in Havana following more than a half-century of estrangement, administration officials said Wednesday.

The trip is tentatively scheduled to precede a presidential visit to Argentina. The White House had initially hoped that the Cuba stop would coincide with the signing on the island of a peace deal ending Colombia’s long guerrilla war, but the March 23 deadline for the agreement now is expected to be extended for at least several days, possibly weeks.

That left the White House in the position of possibly running into Good Friday and Easter Sunday, high holidays in Latin America – although not necessarily in Cuba – that would make it difficult to schedule high-level meetings, and a decision was made to go ahead without the Colombia agreement.

The administration will announce the president’s travel to Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America on Thursday, said a senior administration official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the schedule had not yet been released. News of the trip was first reported by ABC News.

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Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced in December 2014 that they planned to normalize relations between the two countries. Last summer, they formally reestablished diplomatic ties.

In recent weeks, administration officials have made it clear Obama would travel to Cuba only if its government made additional concessions in the areas of human rights, Internet access and market liberalization.

Speaking to Yahoo News in December, Obama said he “very much” wanted to visit the island nation before leaving office, but would only do that under the condition he could meet with dissidents as well as government officials.

“If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” Obama said in the interview. “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”

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Some progress has been made on Internet connectivity in Cuba, and the number of private businesses has been slowly growing there. This week, Washington and Havana announced that they have completed negotiations to allow commercial air traffic between the two countries.

There has been little movement on political freedoms, however, and the number of dissidents in detention has steadily increased in recent months. Unlike the prosecution and lengthy prison terms of the past, virtually all of those detained for political activity over the past several months have been held for a few hours at most and then released.

An administration official said it was difficult to tell whether the increased arrests were because more Cubans now felt moved to demonstrate against the government.

News of the trip brought an immediate rebuke from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said it “will only legitimize [Raúl and Fidel] Castros’ repressive behavior.”

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“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,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who is a Cuban American. “There has been no progress in regards to human rights on the Castro brothers’ island gulag nor have conditions in Cuba improved since this administration began providing the regime with concession after concession.”