President Obama on Thursday promised to raise human rights concerns when he makes a legacy-defining visit to Cuba in March, as the White House tried to beat back Republican charges that the trip will hand an important symbolic victory to the authoritarian government in Havana.
“We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world,” the White House announced on Obama’s official Twitter feed.
Obama had told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview in December that he could not imagine visiting Cuba without meeting face-to-face with advocates for political change, dissidents who experience regular harassment or worse from the authoritarian government in Havana.
“If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” Obama said at the time. “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President [Raul] Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that the president would meet with dissidents during the March 21-22 trip, the first by a sitting American president since Calvin Coolidge steamed the 90 miles separating Florida and Cuba aboard a battleship. Rhodes said the administration had already warned the Castro regime that Obama would meet with some of its domestic critics.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re seeking to overthrow the Cuban government,” Rhodes said of the planned meetings. “It means that we’re seeking to support basic universal values that we would care about in any country.”
Rhodes acknowledged a deeply worrisome spike in arrests and harassment of dissidents and journalists in Cuba over the past year and promised “that’s an issue that we’ll be raising directly with the Cuban government.”
Magnets, including one showing an image of President Obama smelling a cigar, for sale at a tourist shop in Havana. (Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP)
Republicans denounced the planned trip. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the two Cuban-Americans seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2016, wrote a letter to Obama condemning it as “disastrous,” “dangerous” and “a mistake,” and pushed the president to cancel his announced visit.
“You will send the message to the oppressed Cuban people that you stand with their oppressors,” Rubio wrote. “I urge you to reconsider visiting Cuba and instead insist that the Castro regime finally make some serious concessions.”
Republicans have repeatedly said that easing restrictions on investment and tourism by Americans in Cuba will merely put much-needed dollars in the pockets of the government.
And White House officials acknowledge that Cuba appears to be following the example of Vietnam or China, where authoritarian governments have sought to harness the benefits of limited free-market reforms while reining in political change. While greater openness to the outside world can sow domestic discontent, improvements in people’s economic well-being can ease pressure on governments to change.
“If the Cuban economy improves, there’ll be more resources for the government. But there’ll be far more resources for the Cuban people,” Rhodes countered. “We believe that American business is a net positive for the Cuban people and that, over time, it is going to bring about real benefits and improvements in their lives.”
Rhodes suggested that one major difference between Cuba and Vietnam was that the Cuban-American community “is deeply invested in the future of Cuba, that cares deeply about the well-being and the rights of the Cuban people.”
Rhodes added, “What we’ve heard from many of them is they see that Cuba is changing. There is an evolution taking place in Cuba. And we can either be a part of that or not.”
The outreach to Cuba has emerged as a major legacy issue for Obama.
On Dec. 17, 2014, he and Raul Castro stunned the world by disclosing that they had held secret negotiations and were prepared to usher in a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations, starting with the resumption of full diplomatic ties.
Embassies reopened in Havana and Washington, the United States removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and the two sides took steps to increase travel and business opportunities.
Obama has undertaken many changes using his executive powers, and he indicated in the interview that he would continue looking at ways to do so in 2016. But the president needs Congress to roll back the centerpiece of America’s Cold War-era pressure on Cuba and lift the U.S. trade embargo.
The embargo has its roots in the years after the 1959 Cuban revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power. Castro nationalized some U.S. businesses and ultimately declared himself in the Soviet Union’s camp. The punishing sanctions are thought to have kept Cuba from trying to foment revolution in other Latin American countries but failed utterly in getting Cubans to rise up against Castro. Instead, Fidel and Raul each blamed the embargo for the island’s economic ills. The collapse of the Soviet Union cost Havana its major economic patron, but traditional U.S. allies in Western Europe as well as Canada and Mexico invested in Cuba and sent tourists there, in effect countering the embargo.
While Republican presidential candidates have vowed to roll back Obama’s policy, the White House has been working on ways to make the outreach “irreversible” should the GOP capture the presidency in November.
The White House has also highlighted commercial exchanges between the United States and the socialist-run island nation that it said are already improving material life for Cubans and pointed to modest promises by Havana to expand access to the Internet on the island and embrace other limited economic reforms.
“Still, this progress is insufficient,” Rhodes said in a post on Medium, a favorite site of politicians looking to publicize press releases. “We want the Cuban government to open up more opportunities for its people to benefit from that engagement.”
It was unclear whether Obama would be able to announce any breakthroughs before or during the trip. Cuba has resisted one of his priorities: enabling American businesses to hire Cubans directly rather than going through the government. And the president has yet to nominate an ambassador to Cuba.
The career diplomat currently in charge of the embassy in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, is widely admired in foreign policy circles and is a frontrunner for the job. But the White House could also reach across party lines to someone like Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican who served as then-President George W. Bush’s commerce secretary and has embraced Obama’s Cuba policy.
The last time a former U.S. president visited Cuba was 2002, when Jimmy Carter traveled there.