HAVANA (AFP) - Cuba on Thursday hailed Barack Obama's planned March visit to the island as a step towards mending bilateral relations and expressed willingness to discuss human rights with the US leader.
"His visit will represent a step forward in the improvement of relations between Cuba and the United States," Josefina Vidal, head of US relations in the Cuban foreign ministry, told reporters.
"It will be an opportunity for President Obama to appreciate the Cuban reality" and to discuss how to "expand bilateral dialogue and cooperation between the two countries," she said in English.
Obama's March 21-22 visit to Cuba along with First Lady Michelle Obama will be the first by a sitting US president since 1928, long before the communist island's 1959 revolution.
The two countries restored diplomatic relations in July but a five-decade US trade embargo is still in place.
"In order to achieve the normalisation of relations between the two countries, the blockade has to be lifted and the territory occupied by the naval base in Guantanamo has to be returned," Vidal said.
Obama said that on the trip he would raise the issue of human rights, one of the most sensitive topics in negotiations between the two countries.
The White House said the President would meet leaders of civil groups who remain under pressure from the regime.
"Cuba is ready to have dialogue with the US government on any subject, including human rights, on which we have different views," Vidal said.
She added that Cuba "has opinions on the exercising of human rights in many countries in the world, including in the United States, and also has a lot of experience of success to share in this field."
Cuban dissident groups said they hoped Obama's visit would help strengthen civil rights on the island.
Award-winning dissident Guillermo Farinas said he hoped Obama would "try to empower the Cuban people, civil society, the domestic opposition, small businesses and ordinary Cubans, not the Cuban government."
Berta Soler, leader of a rights group for jailed Cuban dissidents, said campaigners would ask Obama to support an amnesty for political prisoners and pacts to guarantee human rights on the island.
Human rights campaigner Elizardo Sanchez said he feared authorities would crack down on dissident groups ahead of Obama's visit to stop them attending.