WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – US President Barack Obama on Thursday announced a historic visit to Cuba next month, the first US presidential trip to the country in nearly 90 years and a dramatic symbol of the thaw in hostilities between the former Cold War foes.
Obama, now in his final year in office, will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, entrepreneurs, and “Cubans from different walks of life” during the March 21 and 22 visit, the White House said.
First lady Michelle Obama will join him on the trip. “Next month, I’ll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama wrote on Twitter.
After decades of animosity, the two nations made a surprise announcement in December 2014 that they would move to reopen ties, a diplomatic feat that is a highlight of Obama’s presidential legacy.
Obama said that while the United States still has concerns about human rights in Cuba, it has already made significant progress in renewing relationships.
“We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world,” Obama said.
Obama had previously said he would visit the neighbouring Communist-ruled nation if he were able to meet with political dissidents.
His administration has taken steps to expand commerce with the island nation, only 145km from Florida, but wants to pressure the US Congress to remove the longstanding trade embargo with Cuba.
The Havana visit will resonate in the campaign for the Nov 8 US presidential election. Two candidates in the Republican race, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are conservative sons of Cuban immigrants and have criticised Obama for renewing ties with Cuba.
But news of the trip was praised in Havana.
“Peace reigns in this hemisphere,” said Jorge Felix, a home painter. “These are two countries who have confronted each other for fifty something years, and on this occasion the visit of the US president to Cuba is reason for happiness and rejoicing,” he said.
“We are going to give him a box of Habanos,” for a real taste of Cuba, said Luis Fernandez, a retired cigar roller, referring to a Cuban cigar brand.
Obama will also travel to Argentina on March 23-24 to meet new President Mauricio Macri to discuss his reforms and human rights, the White House said.