Friday, February 19, 2016

Despite differences with Cuba, Obama says now is the time to visit the island

Despite differences with Cuba, Obama says now is the time to visit the

Obama says he plans to raise human rights with Cuban government
Opponents criticize the March 21-22 visit
Announcement comes amid busy week of U.S.-Cuba engagement


A thicket of issues still separates Cuba and the United States and a
U.S. president hasn't set foot on Cuban soil in nearly 90 years but
President Barack Obama said Thursday now is the best time for him to
visit the island.

Obama and the first lady will travel to Cuba March 21-22 before heading
to a two-day visit to Argentina. The last and only time a sitting U.S.
president visited Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. He arrived in a
battleship to attend the Sixth Annual International Conference of
American States.

During the historic visit, the president plans to talk not only with the
Cuban leadership but also reach out to Cuban entrepreneurs, dissidents,
"Cubans from different walks of life," said Ben Rhodes, a national
security adviser to the president who took part in secret negotiations
leading to the surprise announcement on Dec. 17, 2014 that the two
former adversaries would work toward normalizing relations.

"I'll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can
improve the lives of the Cuban people," the president announced on
Twitter early Thursday. "We still have differences with the Cuban
government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for
human rights around the world."

President Obama ✔ @POTUS
We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise
directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world.

President Obama ✔ @POTUS
Next month, I'll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that
can improve the lives of the Cuban people.
3:05 PM - 18 Feb 2016

Details of the trip haven't been fully worked out, but Obama is expected
to meet with Cuban leader Raúl Castro but not his brother Fidel.

Since rapprochement began, embassies have reopened,many rounds of talks
on issues such as migration have been held in Washington and Havana and
new regulations have taken effect that permit more U.S. travel to and
commerce with Cuba even though the embargo remains in place. But critics
question if Cuba has done enough to warrant a presidential visit.

Obama has said he wanted to see progress in Cuba's human rights record,
access to more information on the Internet for Cubans, and a bigger role
for private business.

That progress has been mixed with human rights the most divisive issue,
but the president decided he should go sooner rather than later, Rhodes

"The president's judgment was that, number one, going to Cuba was an
important step forward in signaling this new beginning between our two
countries and peoples; and also importantly that going to Cuba could
help enlarge this space that benefits the Cuban people and increases
ties between our countries," said Rhodes.

Going earlier in the year instead of toward the end of the president's
term also allows time "to get more done both around his visit and in the
days and months that follow," said Rhodes. The United States, he noted,
has been reviewing and changing regulations governing travel and
commerce, and other changes could come in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Rhodes said the United States would also like to see Cuba take concrete
steps to "allow those regulatory steps to take hold."

Josefina Vidal, who heads the U.S. section in Cuba's Ministry of Foreign
Relations, said that the president would be welcomed by the government
and Cuban people "with our traditional hospitality."

"This visit will be one more step toward an improvement in relations
between Cuba and the United States," she said during a news conference
in Havana. "Cuba is open to conversations with the United States on any
theme, including human rights," she said. But she said Cuba has a
different concept of human rights than the United States.

Cuba's human rights records remains a cause of concern for the exile
community, but the reaction to Obama's visit is no longer as monolithic
as it might once have been.

It was an insult to those who have long held the belief that a U.S.
president shouldn't visit Cuba until the Castros are no longer in power
and there is a democratic transition. "Totally unacceptable for the
president of the United States to reward a dictatorial regime with an
historic visit when human rights abuses endure and democracy continues
to be shunned," said Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.

Rather than improve things for the Cuban people, Obama's visit "will
only legitimize the Castros' repressive behavior," said South Florida
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

But for others, the trip is good news. "Coming on the heels of the
pope's visit to Cuba, the president's trip shines the spotlight on the
opening of Cuba. This is the final symbol of the policy shift and the
next logical step in fostering the relationship," said Pedro Freyre, a
Miami lawyer who represents some of the companies trying to do business
with Cuba under the Obama opening.

"President Obama is going to Cuba to cap off what he and his supporters
believe was one of his most positive foreign policy accomplishments,"
said Mel Levitsky, an international policy professor at the University
of Michigan. "While there are a number of Cuban-Americans who disagree
with the re-establishment of relations with Cuba, that number is
diminishing as the younger generation begins to step out front."

Economic issues are ultimately connected to human rights issues because
they improve the lives of the Cuban people, Rhodes said. In the White
House's view, there has been progress on the economic front and
improvement in information access.

Earlier this week, the United States and Cuba signed a civil aviation
accord that will pave the way for regularly scheduled airline service
between the two countries to begin, probably by fall.

U.S. and Cuban officials also met in Washington on Wednesday and
Thursday to discuss better understanding each other's economies and
regulations and to take advantage of the new opening. Cuban Foreign
Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca led a large trade delegation to the
national capital this week.

On the Internet front, Cuba recently announced that it was introducing a
pilot program to bring broadband Internet to Cuban households and it has
continued to roll out more public Wi-Fi hotspots around the island.
Internet access, however, is still among the lowest in the hemisphere.

"Openings for American companies also hold the potential of improving
the lives of ordinary Cubans  —  for instance, American companies will
be enabling travelers to stay in Cuban homes and setting up a factory
that will provide equipment for farmers," said Rhodes in an article that
appeared Thursday in Medium, a White House web platform.

So far, the only specific meeting for Obama announced by the White House
is the one with Raúl Castro. They had their first face-to-face sit-down
at an historic meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last
April. At the previous Summit, Obama was under pressure from countries
around the Americas to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba. The U.S.
policy of ostracizing Cuba had isolated the United States in the region.

"An official presidential visit is the height of U.S. diplomacy on the
world stage, and this trip will be the ultimate gesture for President
Obama in elevating the U.S. image in Latin America," said Peter
Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the
Atlantic Council.

The president's timetable will also put him in Cuba when the Tampa Bay
Rays play Cuba's national baseball team March 22, but it is unclear
whether the first family will be attending the game.

A discussion of Cuba has been all but absent in presidential debates so
far. But it came up at a CNN town hall Wednesday. Asked if he would go
to Cuba, Republican White House hopeful and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio
responded: "Not if it's not a free Cuba."

When GOP hopeful Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also a Cuban-American, was later
asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper if it's an option he would consider, he
said, "It is not as long as the Castros are in power.

"I was saddened to hear the news but I wasn't surprised. This was
foreshadowed for a long time," he said. "President Obama's foreign
policy has consistently alienated our friends."

But Rhodes said regardless of who next occupies the White House, "We
want to make this policy change irreversible. And that means we want
links between Cubans and Americans, and the links between our businesses
and the engagement between our countries to gain such momentum that
there's an inevitability to the opening."

Source: Despite differences with Cuba, Obama says now is the time to
visit the island | Miami Herald -

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