The White House confirmed that President Obama will visit Cuba on March 21 and 22 “to build on the progress we have made toward normalization of relations with Cuba” — drawing outrage from congressional human-rights activists.
Press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement this morning that Obama’s visit will focus on “advancing commercial and people-to-people ties that can improve the well-being of the Cuban people, and expressing our support for human rights.”
“In addition to holding a bilateral meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, President Obama will engage with members of civil society, entrepreneurs and Cubans from different walks of life,” Earnest said. “This historic visit – the first by a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years – is another demonstration of the president’s commitment to chart a new course for U.S.-Cuban relations and connect U.S. and Cuban citizens through expanded travel, commerce, and access to information.”
From there, Obama will travel to Argentina to meet with new President Mauricio Macri to “deepen efforts to increase cooperation between our governments in a range of areas, including trade and investment, renewable energy and climate change, and citizen security.”
“It has been nearly two decades since the last bilaterally focused visit by a U.S. president to Argentina, Latin America’s third largest country,” Earnest added.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa whose family escaped Cuba when she was a little girl, called it “absolutely shameful that Obama is rewarding the Castros with a visit to Cuba by a sitting American president since their reign of terror began.”
“For more than 50 years Cubans have been fleeing the Castro regime yet the country which grants them refuge, the United States, has now decided to quite literally embrace their oppressors,” Ros-Lehtinen said late Wednesday. “There has been no progress in regards to human rights on the Castro brothers’ island gulag nor have conditions in Cuba improved since this administration began providing the regime with concession after concession. A visit by President Obama more than one year after his unilateral concessions to the regime will only legitimize the Castros’ repressive behavior.”
“It is a slap in the face to the memory of the Brothers to the Rescue pilots, three U.S. citizens and one U.S. resident, who were murdered by the Castro regime and those who have fled the Castro’s oppression to see Air Force One land in Havana,” she continued. “Instead of standing up for pro-democracy leaders like Las Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), Jorge Luis Garcia Perez ‘Antunez,’ and others, the Obama administration has decided to cater to aging autocrats who rule by denying Cubans their basic human rights.”
“Unfortunately, this announcement encapsulates President Obama’s Cuba policy characterized by unilateral concessions and willfully neglecting to pursue American claims.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called it “totally unacceptable for the president of the United States to reward a dictatorial regime with an historic visit when human rights abuses endure and democracy continues to be shunned.”
“This will mark the first time a U.S. president is visiting a dictatorship in Latin America since Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 visit to Nicaragua and it’s the first presidential visit to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Since Castro seized power, nine American Presidents – Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush – did not rush to the island to shake hands with an oppressive dictator,” Menendez said. “They instead stood firmly against a regime that represses its people’s freedoms and blatantly violates human rights just 90 miles from our shore.”
“The president is – again – prioritizing short-term economic interests over long-term and enduring American values. He will rue this decision, just as he will ultimately rue giving a lifeline to the Ayatollah.”
Menendez added that “as our president plans this trip with expectations that the world will watch and cheer, I remain of the belief that until the Cuban people are given the freedoms and liberties they deserve, eased relations should not be cheered.”
The senator noted “multiple steps that have shifted leverage to the Castro regime: Travel, finance and commerce regulations have been eased, Cuba has been removed from the State-Sponsor of Terrorism List and an embassy has opened.”
“However, since these sweeping changes started in December 2014, Cubans have been beaten, arrested, and repressed at higher rates than ever before,” Menendez continued. “The Cuban Commission for Human Rights documented over 900 political arrests by the Castro regime in the month of December 2015 and 1,400 in January 2016 alone. U.S. fugitives, like Joanne Chesimard who remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorism List for the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster, are still enjoying safe harbor on the island and not a penny of the $6 billion in outstanding claims by American citizens and businesses for properties confiscated by the Castros has been repaid. To this day, we have not seen one substantial step toward transparent democratic elections, improved human rights, freedom of assembly, or the ability to form independent political parties and trade unions in Cuba.”
“And yet, despite the lack of reciprocity from a despotic and reinvigorated Castro regime, our president is rewarding this oppressive regime with a visit. In the case of Cuba, we should at the very least expect Joanne Chesimard to step off Air Force One with U.S. marshals.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent Obama a letter asking him to reconsider the trip.
“Having an American president go to Cuba simply for the sake of going there, without the United States getting anything in return, is both counterproductive and damaging to our national security interests. Any time a president visits a foreign country, it speaks volumes to the host country, to the American people and to the rest of the world,” Rubio wrote.
“If you proceed with this visit, you will further confirm what the Castro regime has learned throughout its negotiations with your Administration: that you are willing to give up all the leverage the United States has in exchange for virtually nothing. You will send the message to the oppressed Cuban people that you stand with their oppressors. You will send the message to the Western Hemisphere and the rest of the world, especially our enemies, that the United States can grow tired of standing up for our national security interests and principles.”