Wednesday 28 September 2016

Obama to be first US leader to visit Cuba in 90 years

Harriet Alexander in New York

Published 19/02/2016 | 02:30

US President Barack Obama as he shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. last year.
US President Barack Obama as he shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. last year.

President Barack Obama is to visit Cuba next month, becoming the first sitting president to travel to the island in almost 90 years.

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The White House said that the president would travel as part of an already-planned Latin American trip. The visit is expected in late March.

Mr Obama has made it clear that he believes the US embargo on Cuba should be lifted, as it does not produce the desired result of making the country more democratic.

Last December he said he would only visit if he was allowed to meet with all Cubans, including dissidents.

"If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody," he said. "I've made very clear in my conversations directly with President Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside Cuba."

He will raise human rights issues and other US concerns with Cuban President Raul Castro .

The brief visit in mid-March will mark a watershed moment in relations between the US and Cuba, making Obama the first sitting US president to set foot on the island in nearly nine decades.

While in the country, Obama plans to meet with groups advocating for change in Cuba - a condition the president had laid out publicly for such a trip.

"We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly," Obama wrote on Twitter as he announced the visit. "America will always stand for human rights around the world."

Cuban Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca, on a visit to Washington, said that Obama's visit is good news for Cuba.

"The president will be welcomed," he said in Spanish.

Estranged

The US was estranged from the communist nation for over half a century until Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro moved toward rapprochement more than a year ago. Since then, the nations have reopened embassies in Washington and Havana and have moved to restore commercial air travel.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the president will carry the message that the US and Cuba need not be defined by their "complicated and difficult history."

He said the US wants to expand opportunities for American businesses in Cuba, facilitate travel for Americans, and coax Cuba's government into passing those benefits on to the public.

"Cuba will not change overnight," Rhodes wrote in a blog post. But he said the guiding principle behind the visit is "taking steps that will improve the lives of the Cuban people."

But the fulfilment of Mr Obama's long-held dream - it was widely known that he intended to visit Cuba before the end of his presidency - marks yet another sign of his wish to make friendly relations with the island his legacy.

Since December 2014, when he announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the Cold War-era foe, American attitudes have been warming.

On Tuesday an agreement was signed to allow 110 direct flights a day between the US and Cuba. American tourists are still not officially allowed - only travellers for specific cultural, educational, family and scientific trips can visit - but in practice the number of US visitors has soared. Nearly 160,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2015 - a 50pc increase on the previous year.

The first American business is to open on the island next year, with a tractor company from Alabama planning to build and sell its machines from a factory on the isle.

Raul Castro, the president of Cuba, became the first Cuban president to visit the US since the revolution last September. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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