Updated 3:35 p.m. | President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba next month, a visit that will mark the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting U.S. chief executive will set foot in the island country.
Obama and his wife Michelle will arrive in Cuba on March 21 for a two-day visit that will include a meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro, brother of longtime Cuban leader and American rival Fidel Castro. The visit comes over a year after Washington and Havana restored all diplomatic ties in December 2014 and the two countries last summer re-opened embassies on each other’s soil.
"In Cuba, the president will work to build on the progress we have made toward normalization of relations with Cuba — advancing commercial and people-to-people ties that can improve the well being of the Cuban people, and expressing our support for human rights," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a Thursday statement.
The last sitting American president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge, 88 years ago, who traveled there to speak at an international national conference of American states in Havana.
Before a thaw under Obama, U.S.-Cuban relations had been in the deep freeze since 1960 following Fidel Castro’s decision to increase taxes on American imports and nationalize all foreign assets in his country. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower retaliated by imposing a trade embargo with the island country, cutting off diplomatic ties with Castro’s government, freezing Cuban assets in the U.S. and cutting the import quota on Cuban sugar.
Relations worsened after a failed U.S. attempt to change the regime in Havana, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Castro’s deepening partnership with the Soviet Union.
But decades later, the Obama administration dubbed Washington’s longstanding isolation of Cuba “a failed approach.”
“Decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our objective of empowering Cubans to build an open and democratic country,” states a White House fact sheet .
“At times, longstanding U.S. policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba," the fact sheet states.
Some Republican presidential candidates, including two with Cuban heritage, oppose Obama’s maneuvering toward the Communist regime of the Castros.
“Not as long as Castro is in power,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, replied Wednesday night during a CNN-sponsored town hall to a question about whether he would, as president, visit the country. “And I will say I was saddened to hear that [but] I wasn’t surprised.”
GOP front-runner Donald Trump has called a U.S. policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain here legally “very unfair” to immigrants who have been in the United States for years working through the cumbersome process to become a citizen.
Cruz, the son of a Cuban father, has said he would keep that policy in place. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another White House hopeful and the son of Cuban parents, has blocked Obama's pick for an ambassador to Cuba and has filed legislation that would require Cuban immigrants to prove they were persecuted there before they could receive food stamps and Medicaid.
At the White House, officials defended the visit and Obama's decision to restore relations with Cuba.
Deputy White House National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes reiterated the administration's policy of engaging the Castro regime rather than continue to isolate it. He said five decades of the latter did not help the Cuban people.
While Obama will meet with Raúl Castro, he will not meet his brother.
"I wouldn't expect him to meet with Fidel Castro," Rhodes said.
White House officials did discuss the trip with some lawmakers, Rhodes told reporters. He did not name names, but said those members have "different viewpoints."
What's more, the White House intends to take along some unspecified members of Congress when Obama visits Cuba.
The U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay will not be among the issues U.S. and Cuban officials will discuss, Rhodes said. The Cuban government wants that property back, but Washington has no plans to hand it over.
See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.