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Obama Says Cuba Visit to Begin March 21


President Barack Obama discusses his upcoming trip to Cuba during his weekly address, Feb. 20, 2016.

President Barack Obama is going to Cuba next month, becoming the first sitting American president to visit Havana in nearly 90 years.

The president, in his weekly address Saturday, said he and his wife Michelle would open a two-day visit to the Cuban capital on March 21.

Obama said he would meet with Cuban President Raul Castro "to discuss how we can continue normalizing relations." The president added, "I'll speak candidly about our serious differences with the Cuban government, including on democracy and human rights."

On Thursday, two Republican presidential candidates with strong ties to Cuba criticized the planned Obama visit. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents migrated from Cuba in the 1950s, said the thaw in bilateral ties in the past year had not spawned any improvements in Cuba's human rights record.

"The Cuban government remains as oppressive as ever," he said.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose father fled Cuba in 1957, also said he would not visit the communist state. He called the Obama visit "a real mistake."

For her part, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has praised the U.S.-Cuban engagement, calling rapprochement a threat to Castro's rule. Clinton rival Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, called the planned visit "a major step forward."

Obama held historic talks in Panama with the Cuban leader in June 2015 on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, saying he wanted to "turn the page" on Cold War divisions to engage with Havana. Weeks earlier, the Obama administration removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

At that time, Castro said he was prepared to address a number of contentious issues raised by Washington, including widely divergent views on human rights and press freedoms in Cuba. Castro also called on Obama to make good on a 2009 promise to close the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.

WATCH: President Obama's weekly address

Obama said topics during his upcoming talks with Castro would include making trade easier and making it easier for Cubans to access the Internet and to start their own businesses.

The president said his trip "builds on the decision I made more than a year ago to begin a new chapter in our relationship with the people of Cuba."

The U.S. leader also plans to meet with members of Cuba's civil society, whom he described as "courageous men and women who give voice to the aspirations of the Cuban people."

Obama said he would also "speak directly to the Cuban people about the values we share and how I believe we can be partners as they work for the future they want."

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