- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

HAVANA (AP) - Cubans hailed President Barack Obama’s announcement Thursday that he will make a two-day trip to the communist-run island, saying that just like the American leader, they want the historic visit to spur faster change in their lives.

Obama’s March 21-22 trip is meant to create so much momentum behind his new policy of detente with Cuba that the next U.S. president cannot reverse it, administration officials said. More than a year after the detente was announced, the pace of normalization has been accelerating even though millions of Cubans have yet to see benefits.

Dozens of new public WiFi spots have created Internet access for tens of thousands across Cuba since Obama and President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that they would restore diplomatic relations. A surge in tourism has flooded private and government-run tourism businesses with cash. Over just the last week, the two countries have sealed deals to re-establish commercial flights, open the first U.S. factory in Cuba in six decades and return a U.S. missile that was mistakenly shipped from France to Cuba in 2014.

But ordinary Cubans interviewed by The Associated Press on Thursday said they have seen little improvement in their lives and they hope Obama’s trip will help them see more benefits from the re-establishment of relations.

“Until now we haven’t seen any direct impact on the economic well-being of the Cuban people,” said Jose Miguel Gomez, a merchant sailor. “The visit will be important because it may lead to more agreements in the warming between the two countries.”

Cuban state media waited several hours after Obama’s announcement to report the visit, the first by a U.S. president in 88 years. When the news began to spread, it was enthusiastically welcomed, including by those who saw it as a step toward ending the half-century-old trade embargo on Cuba.

“The trip will open the door to what we need, that they get rid of the blockade that’s hurting us,” said Yosvany Martinez, a parking attendant. “I feel the change at least in the growth of tourism and people are happier, but the everyday lives of people like me, who live on a state salary, they haven’t changed.”

Cuban officials welcomed the trip but offered few details about Obama’s schedule in Cuba or topics that would be discussed, aside from the longstanding Cuban demand to lift the embargo and return the Guantanamo Bay naval base to Cuba.

“This visit is another step toward improvement in relations between Cuba and the United States,” said Josefina Vidal, head of U.S. affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

The White House said Obama will meet with dissidents while in Cuba and push for improvement in human rights. Activists said the treatment of opposition members has worsened since detente began, with short-term detentions of protesters and dissenters rising from several hundred a month to about 1,000 monthly. The number of long-term political prisoners is far smaller and has shrunk in recent years.

“The figures show that the situation has clearly worsened more than a year after the re-establishment of relations between the two governments,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the non-governmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. “The state of civil and political rights in Cuba is imposed by a government that has no inclination to change things.”


Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein

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