News / USA

    Obama to Press Human Rights Issues in Cuba

    FILE - President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meet for an informal talk on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, April 11, 2015.
    FILE - President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meet for an informal talk on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, April 11, 2015.
    William GalloAru Pande

    It’s a visit the communist nation has waited on for nearly a century.

    Just 14 months after ordering the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba, Barack Obama will become the first sitting American president to travel to Havana in nearly 90 years.

    “We see it as a means of pushing forward this normalization process, trying to achieve a greater opening between the United States and Cuba commercially, but also supporting and advancing the values that we care about,”  White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Thursday.

    The president will highlight those universal values during his March 21-22 trip, Rhodes said, while meeting with Cuban dissidents, civil society members and the Cuban government.

    In particular, the White House official said Obama would raise with Cuban officials the detention and harassment of those wanting to express their basic rights.

    Watch video report from VOA's Katherine Gypson:

    Obama to Highlight Human Rights in Historic Cuba Visiti
    February 19, 2016 3:24 AM
    President Obama's announcement that he will visit Cuba next month is drawing strong reactions -- both in Havana and Washington. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.

    ​But why is the president making the historic visit now, amid continuing concerns about human rights?

    “Not going and isolating Cuba doesn’t serve to advance those issues," Rhodes said. The United States "will be in a better position to support human rights and to support a better life for the Cuban people by engaging them and raising these issues directly.”

    Obama, who will be joined by his wife, Michelle, will hold bilateral talks with Cuban President Raul Castro but has no plans to meet with his brother, Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader who took power in Cuba more than half a century ago but has retired for health reasons.

    The American president met his Cuban counterpart twice before, first on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas last April and again at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

    U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes' remarks on President Obama's Cuba tripi
    February 18, 2016 9:41 PM
    U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes remarks on President Obama's Cuba trip, Feb. 18, 2016

    In a tweet Thursday, Obama noted his trip would seek to advance bilateral ties and "efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people." 

    Cuban officials welcomed the upcoming visit and expressed a willingness to discuss any issue.

    Peter Kornbluh, an analyst and co-author of Back Channel to Cuba, said the timing of Obama’s historic trip would be key in solidifying U.S. engagement with Havana.

    “Make it irreversible, so that even if a Marco Rubio, a Ted Cruz or a Jeb Bush is elected the next president of the United States, the investment by U.S. companies, U.S. society in better relations with Cuba is permanent,” Kornbluh said.

    Since the historic thaw in ties was announced in December 2014, Obama has made steady progress in breaking down diplomatic barriers with the former Cold War enemy. The successes include restoring diplomatic relations and reopening embassies in each country's capital.

    The U.S. also has removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    Using his executive authority, Obama has persistently chipped away at the long-standing U.S. restrictions on business, investment and travel in Cuba. The latest step came last week when the two countries reached an arrangement to restore direct, regularly scheduled commercial flights between the countries, the first in more than 50 years.

    But while Obama has loosened restrictions on Cuba, progress on the Cuban end has stalled, according to John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

    "The Cubans haven't really done anything, other than allowing more individuals into Cuba and making more money from them," Kavulich told VOA.

    But Havana could be motivated to make some major concessions over the next year, Kavulich said, in part to forestall any future U.S. president who might want to reverse Obama's policies.

    "Everything can be reversed," he said. "And if the only activities are some airlines traveling to Cuba, that's not going to be much of an impediment for a new president. So the Cubans now know they're going to have make some things happen."

    Obama can also continue to loosen restrictions on his own. The biggest change would be to allow Cuba to use U.S. dollars in its international transactions, a move that could dramatically and rapidly stimulate the Cuban economy.

    "That is the last of the big regulations that [Obama] has control of," Kavulich said. "He may be saving that for this trip."

    Photo gallery: US Rapprochement With Cuba

    • U.S.Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Cuba's Minister of Transportation Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez, right, sign the airline transportation agreement as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Charles Rivkin, top left, looks on
    • Tourists enjoy a ride in vintage cars in old Havana, Cuba, Jan. 17, 2016.
    • Family members of U.S. Embassy employees look out at the staging area before the start of a flag raising ceremony, at the newly opened U.S. Embassy, in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 14, 2015.
    • U.S. President Barack Obama, right, meets with Cuban President Raul Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, April 11, 2015.
    • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry departs for Havana, Cuba, Aug. 14, 2015. (Photo: Pam Dockins / VOA)
    • A woman waves a U.S flag in front of the U.S. Interests Section, in Havana, July 20, 2015.

    But there are limits to what Obama can accomplish unilaterally. The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, which has been in place for decades, can be removed only by Congress. Rhodes said Thursday that the administration was reaching out to lawmakers and that bipartisan support for greater engagement with Cuba was growing.

    Other issues that complicate U.S.-Cuban relations include the American-run military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Raul Castro has said the only way for ties to be completely restored is if Washington returns the base to Cuban control.

    Rhodes said that while Cuban officials would most likely raise the issue during talks, giving Guantanamo back to Havana was “not on the table.”

    Obama is working to meet the promise he made upon taking office in 2009: closing down the controversial prison at Guantanamo, which holds dozens of suspected terrorists.

    Watch: July 01, 2015 — President Obama Addresses US-Cuba Relations

    President Obama Announces Reestablishment of US-Cuba Relationsi
    July 01, 2015 3:29 PM
    Saying ‘we don't have to be imprisoned by the past,’ President Obama announced the two countries will reopen embassies in each other's capitals this summer.

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    Comment Sorting
    by: Lou from: Atlanta
    February 19, 2016 8:41 AM
    There is certainly one person who is not happy with the normalization of relations with Cuba and that is Ed Newman of Radio Havana Cuba. If I recall correctly he is wanted on bank robbery charges in the US. At some point his friendly voice will disappear from RHC as he will be on the run again and we will have to listen to broken English from their broadcasts.

    by: Anonymous
    February 18, 2016 4:14 PM
    Gutsy move Mr. President. With few exceptions, this is an issue which causes great consternation within the Republican ranks.

    Having been denied some impressive and necessary landmark achievements within his terms in our own country, President Obama has managed to stick his finger in the collective Republican eye by embracing diplomatic, cultural and trade relations with the people of Cuba at long last. If nothing else, it will still be an achievement worthy of high praise indeed.

    A pox on McConnell, McCain, and the rest of that repugnant and despicable rabble who continuously refuse to do the people's work and bidding in D.C. because our President, who also happens to be their President, is a man not of a color to their liking.

    The Republican party will suffer great loss of prestige and credibility because none of the former Confederate states will believe the Civil War is over, a war which polarized our nation, a war which they soundly lost.

    President Obama's remarkable reputation both as a man and a leader of freedom loving people will outlive all negative opposition, and not one of his obstructionist arch-enemies will be remembered as anything other than an unfortunate footnote to our collective history as a nation. A footnote of absolutely no consequence or value. Republicanism itself shall inherit the wind.

    Congratulations, Mr President, You have done our nation and our history a service we will fondly remember.

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    February 18, 2016 2:59 PM
    "Obama: Cuba Visit Will Advance Efforts to 'Improve Lives of the Cuban People"

    That should be exactly what we don't want to do. We should continue to give Cubans a choice, live in misery under a brutal communist dictatorship or improve their lives by overthrowing it. Obama's policy merely extends the tyranny they live under. This "experiment" didn't work in China or North Korea and it won't work in Cuba.

    by: Ricardo from: Brazil
    February 18, 2016 10:56 AM
    The restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba will be the greatest legacy of President Obama. Bigger and more important even than the Obama Care.

    President Obama could take a simple, but very effective action to prevent the emergence of new dictators or terrorist groups in Latin America. This measure is the American commitment to require all Latin American countries who wish to have any trade relations with the United States make available a high quality internet to its population.

    The power of the internet is huge, and help the the population to react against abusive acts of their rulers.

    It would be great if the U.S. Could create a special fund to finance the implement of this measure.

    by: Julio novelo
    February 18, 2016 9:09 AM
    Our president is sending the wrong signals to the Castro brothers by legitimizing the Rigene he is saying the family can continue to rule for as long as you want this is not already about improving relations with Cuba but the Cuban government will take this to mean that they can name rauls son or in-law to succeed him in power
    In Response

    by: AC from: GA
    February 18, 2016 4:25 PM
    You do know people don't live forever? Encourage the young, show them democracy and things will change over time. There is no magic flag you can wave to change a whole country. This is a long over-due step towards opening freedom as an option.

    by: nature guy from: Tampa, FL
    February 18, 2016 6:59 AM
    I'm glad President Obama is making the trip to Cuba. Anything which continues to improve relations between the U.S. & Cuba is welcome. The Embargo against Cuba has failed. That it has failed should be recognized by those in Congress who continue to permit a minority of Cuban-Americans (mostly in Miami) to dictate American foreign policy.

    by: julio novelo from: United States
    February 18, 2016 6:41 AM
    No one speaks of freedom and respect for human rights for the Cuban people, can it be that a Marxist Leninist dictatorship exists 90 miles from the U.S. and our President does nothing to promote freedom there ? one family rules for over 56 yrs. and he goes to visit without securing any concessions from the old Tyrants , where is our humanity? next come credits to finance the continued oppression of the cubans.
    In Response

    by: Donald SImon from: USA
    February 18, 2016 9:21 AM
    Remember the thieving Tyrants that came before, [Batista and the US Mafia. In the long run Obama has healed a wound that should have never been.

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