Obama planning historic trip to Cuba in March

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will pay a historic visit to Cuba in the coming weeks, senior Obama administration officials said Wednesday, becoming the first president to step foot on the island in nearly nine decades.

The brief visit in mid-March will mark a watershed moment for relations between the U.S. and Cuba, a communist nation estranged from the U.S. 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 part of a broader trip to Latin America next month, said the officials, who requested anonymity because the trip hasn’t been officially announced. The White House planned to unveil Obama’s travel plans Thursday.

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.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose father fled to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1950s, said Obama shouldn’t visit while the Castro family remains in power. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another child of Cuban immigrants, lambasted the president for visiting what he called an “anti-American communist dictatorship.”

“Today, a year and two months after the opening of Cuba, the Cuban government remains as oppressive as ever,” Rubio said on CNN. Told of Obama’s intention to visit, he added, “Probably not going to invite me.”

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.

Facing steadfast opposition to normalized relations from Republicans and some Democrats, Obama has been unable to deliver on Cuba’s biggest request: the lifting of the U.S. 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 90 miles 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.”

Officials didn’t immediately specify what had changed in the last few weeks to clear the way for the trip, first reported by ABC News. But on Tuesday, the two nations signed a deal restoring commercial air traffic later this year, eliminating a key barrier to unfettered travel that isolated Cuban-Americans from their families for generations.

Hundreds of thousands more Americans are expected to visit Cuba each year under the deal, which cleared the way for the U.S. Department of Transportation to open bidding by American air carriers on as many as 110 flights a day. Currently, there are about one-fifth as many flights operating between the two countries — all charters.

Not since President Calvin Coolidge went to Havana in January 1928 has a sitting U.S. president been to Havana, according to the State Department historian’s office. President Harry Truman visited the U.S.-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.

BY JOSH LEDERMAN AND KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press

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