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Thursday, February 18, 2016, 22:32

Obama to visit Cuba March 21-22

By Agencies

Obama to visit Cuba March 21-22
In this Oct 10, 2014 ,file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, Calif. (AP Photo / Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama said on Thursday he would travel to Cuba on March 21 and 22 and meet with Cuban President Raul Castro in a trip "to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people."

In a post on Twitter, Obama said that while the United States still has differences with Cuba, it has already made significant progress in normalizing ties with the country.

He will become the first president to step foot on the island in nearly nine decades.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes says the US still has "serious differences" with Cuban President Raul Castro's government. He says Obama will raise issues of human rights and political freedoms in discussions with Castro.

Rhodes says the US doesn't want to "impose change" but believes Cuba will benefit from free expression of universal rights.

The brief visit will mark a watershed moment for relations between the US and Cuba, a communist nation estranged from the US for half a century until Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro moved to relaunch ties in 2014. Since then, the nations have reopened embassies in Washington and Havana and moved to restore commercial air travel, with a presidential visit seen as a key next step toward bridging the divide.

Obama's stop in Cuba will be part of a broader trip to Latin America that the president will take next month, said senior Obama administration officials Wednesday.

Though Obama had long been expected to visit Cuba in his final year, word of his travel plans drew immediate resistance from opponents of warmer ties with Cuba — including Republican presidential candidates.

Obama to visit Cuba March 21-22
With less than a year left in office, Obama has been eager to make rapid progress on restoring economic and diplomatic ties to cement the rapprochement with Cuba that his administration started. Following secret negotiations between their governments, Obama and Castro announced in late 2014 that they would begin normalizing ties, and months later held the first face-to-face meeting between an American and Cuban president since 1958.

But Obama, facing steadfast opposition to normalized relations from Republicans and some Democrats, has been unable to deliver on Cuba's biggest request: the lifting of the US economic embargo on Cuba. Opponents argue that repealing those sanctions would reward a government still engaging in human rights abuses and stifling of democratic aspirations.

Obama and supporters of the detente argue the decades-old embargo has failed to bring about desired change on the island 145 kilometers south of Florida. Still, while Obama has long expressed an interest in visiting Cuba, White House officials had said the visit wouldn't occur unless and until the conditions were right.

"If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody" — including political dissidents, Obama told Yahoo News in December. "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 of Cuba."

Not since US President Calvin Coolidge went to Havana in January 1928 has a sitting US president been to Havana, according to the State Department historian's office. President Harry Truman visited the US-controlled Guantanamo Bay on the southeast end of the island in 1948, and former President Jimmy Carter has paid multiple visits to the island since leaving office.

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