- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2016

President Obama vowed Thursday to raise human rights concerns with Cuban President Raul Castro as the White House confirmed he will make a historic visit to the communist island nation next month.

The president’s visit on March 21-22 is the latest milestone in Mr. Obama’s drive to restore relations between the U.S. and Cuba, after both countries resumed diplomatic ties last year. While in the country, Mr. Obama will meet with civil society groups advocating for change with Cubans “from all walks of life,” the White House said.

“We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly,” Mr. Obama wrote on Twitter. “America will always stand for human rights around the world.”

Clearly savoring the trip as part of his legacy, Mr. Obama told reporters later Thursday, “It will be fun when we go.”

But Republicans and some Democrats in Congress skeptical of the outreach to Havana blasted Mr. Obama’s decision, saying the Cuban regime hasn’t earned a presidential visit.

“It is 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, New Jersey Democrat and a Cuban-American. “This will mark the first time a U.S. president is visiting a dictatorship in Latin America since Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 visit to Nicaragua and it’s the first presidential visit to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.”

Mr. Menendez said nine U.S. presidents, from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, “did not rush to the island to shake hands with an oppressive dictator. They instead stood firmly against a regime that represses its people’s freedoms and blatantly violates human rights just 90 miles from our shore.”

“The president is — again — prioritizing short-term economic interests over long-term and enduring American values,” Mr. Menendez said. “He will rue this decision, just as he will ultimately rue giving a lifeline to the ayatollah [in Iran].”

Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said the president will carry the message that the U.S. and Cuba need not be defined by their “complicated and difficult history.” He said the U.S. wants to expand business opportunities in Cuba and persuade the government in Havana to spread the economic benefits to its people.

Mr. Rhodes also said the administration wants Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo, although majority of Republicans say it’s highly unlikely before Mr. Obama leaves officer early next year.

Bilateral commerce has already picked up, with U.S. tourist visits to the island surging. The countries recently agreed to restore airline flights, and companies ranging from tractor manufacturers to telecommunications firms are assessing the market, the Reuters news service reported.

But Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, said Cuban dissidents who have been fighting the Castro regime feel abandoned by the Obama administration.

“The U.S. did not even demand the release of all political prisoners on the island of Cuba, there has been no economic or political reform in Cuba,” Mr. Smith said. “Raul Castro has been very clear that there will be no change in the power structure of Cuba.”

He said Americans aren’t free to do business with ordinary Cubans. “They’re free to do business with the Castro regime, the Communist Party, and the companies that operate as shell organizations for that regime,” he said.

Two GOP presidential candidates with Cuban ties blasted the president’s decision. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father came to the U.S. from Cuba, said Mr. Obama shouldn’t visit while the Castro family remains in power. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and another child of Cuban immigrants, criticized the president for visiting what he called an “anti-American communist dictatorship.”

“Probably not going to invite me,” Mr. Rubio said.

But Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who traveled to Havana with Secretary of State John F. Kerry last year for the U.S. Embassy’s re-opening, hailed the announcement.

“For Cubans accustomed to watching their government sputter down the last mile of socialism in a ‘57 Chevy, imagine what they’ll think when they see Air Force One,” Mr. Flake said.

Cuban officials said Thursday they are willing to discuss human rights and civil liberties when Mr. Obama arrives — with some conditions.

Havana is “open to speak to the U.S. government about any topic, including human rights,” Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, told reporters Thursday. But, she added, “We have different ideas [about rights], in the same way that different ideas exist about other topics like democracy, political models and international relations.”

Mr. Obama and his family will travel to Argentina after the stop in Cuba to visit with new President Mauricio Macri.

— This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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