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Obama Meets with Emilio Estefan, Other Cubans to Prep for Havana Trip

President Obama met with musician Emilio Estefan and other Cuban-Americans invited to the White House in advance of his trip to the communist island next week.

Congress has still not lifted the embargo on Cuba, but the Obama administration on Tuesday relaxed travel and currency restrictions as he prepares for the visit.

Others at the White House meeting included Department of Homeland Security  Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Export-Import Bank General Counsel Angela Freyre, and Father Fernando Heriao of St. Brendan Catholic Church in Miami. There were also leaders of groups that have supported Obama’s calls to lift the embargo, such as #CubaNow and the Cuba Study Group.

“The president met today with Cuban-American leaders at the White House, including civil society advocates, faith leaders, and representatives from the private sector, in advance of his trip to Cuba,” press secretary Josh Earnest said in a readout of the meeting. “From the beginning of his administration, President Obama has consulted closely with the Cuban-American community about his Cuba policy, and wanted to hear directly from community leaders about his upcoming trip to Cuba.”

“The president reviewed our ongoing efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. The president highlighted the recent regulatory changes made by the Departments of the Treasury and Commerce, and the impact those changes would have on the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba and engage directly with the Cuban people,” Earnest continued.

“He also reiterated that while in Havana, he will meet with the Cuban government, Cuban entrepreneurs, and Cuban independent civil society. He emphasized that improving the lives of the Cuban people is a central focus of our policy, including access to increased opportunity, connectivity, and our enduring support for human rights — including respect for the right to speak freely, peacefully assembly, and associate. The president noted that he will continue to consult closely with the Cuban-Americans, who represent our values and shared aspirations for a better future for the American and Cuban people.”

In a March 10 letter to the dissident group Ladies in White, Obama said he’d raise the issue of human rights with Raul Castro “as I have in the past.”

Critics of Obama’s Cuba policy in Congress regularly highlight how human rights have suffered in Obama’s drive to have rapprochement with the Castros as part of his legacy.

“Just in the past few days in Cuba, there has been increased repression on the island and more arrests are being made in anticipation of the president’s misguided visit,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said Wednesday. “Yet, the White House continues to grasp at regulatory straws to see what else it can concede in advance of the president’s trip to Cuba to promote more funds going in the pockets of the regime.”

“U.S. policy must focus less on easing our regulations and more on putting pressure on the Castro brothers to unclench its fists which oppress the Cuban people.”

In a lengthy floor speech today, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that “instead of having the free world’s leader honor Latin America’s only dictatorship with a visit, he could have visited one of the 150 countries which he has not visited, including several in Latin America that are democracies.”

He added that “to leave a truly honorable mark in history” would mean President Obama “leaving the Castro’s cordoned-off-tourist-zone and seeing Berta Soler and her Ladies in White at their headquarters in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana, where poverty – Castro style — not opportunity, not freedom, not democracy – but poverty – created by a Stalinist state, is the umbrella under which they live.”

“The simple truth is – deals with the Devil require the Devil to deal. Opening channels of communication controlled by the regime means nothing unless we are going to communicate our values. It means nothing if we do not champion the material changes that the Cuban people seek. It means nothing if we do not speak the language that the Castros understand – that the communist revolution has failed miserably, and it’s time to let the Cuban people decide their future.”

In February, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights documented 1,141 political arrests by the Castro regime. In January, 1,447 political arrests were recorded. More are suspected beyond the documented totals.

“Despite the Obama Administration’s engagement with the Castro dictatorship and increased travel to the island, repression on the island is exponentially rising,” Menendez said. “Why? Because the Castro regime, one of the most astute observers of the American political system, is rushing to take advantage of the permissive environment created by the president’s hunger for legacy and the relaxation of restrictions.”

“Mr. President, legacy is not more important than lives.”