U.S. officials said Friday that Cuba’s human rights issues would be a focal point when President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry visit the island later this month.
“The president is interested in lifting up the importance of universal human rights and the importance of the government not just respecting but actually taking steps to protect the expression of human rights,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The White House and the State Department said Friday that Kerry planned to accompany Obama on his March 21–22 visit to Cuba.
Last month, Kerry told Senate lawmakers that he was considering an earlier trip to Havana to “have a human rights dialogue.”
On Friday, the State Department and White House pushed back against news reports that said Kerry canceled plans for an earlier visit because of haggling with Cuba over which dissidents Obama would be allowed to meet. The State Department said Kerry’s tentative trip was scrubbed because of “logistical concerns.”
Earnest said the president did intend to meet with Cuban dissidents of his choosing.
“The guest list for that meeting will be determined solely by the White House,” he said.
There have been ongoing concerns about Cuba’s human rights record as the U.S. and Cuba move forward with efforts to normalize ties.
U.S. Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, raised the issue with Kerry when he testified before a House panel last month.
Ros-Lehtinen asked Kerry whether he was aware that more than 8,000 allegedly arbitrary arrests and detentions had taken place in Cuba since Obama’s December 2014 announcement of plans to normalize ties.
Kerry told lawmakers the U.S. was now engaged more directly with Cuba on human rights issues because of its additional U.S. diplomatic presence in Havana.
State Department spokesman John Kirby acknowledged that despite improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba, there are still issues on which the two countries do not see “eye to eye.”
“It is the way in which political dissent is not tolerated and the speed with which and the groundless nature with which people are arrested and detained in Cuba,” said Kirby, citing examples of human rights disagreements.
The U.S. needs to continue to press Cuba on issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of association, said Marc Hanson, president of the Washington Office on Latin America.
However, he said, the U.S.-Cuba normalization process will benefit this effort.
"It is abundantly clear that a policy of isolation did not work on moving the needle on human rights or democracy in Cuba," he said.
Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Cuba since 1929. Kerry will be making his second trip as secretary of state, after attending an August ceremony to mark the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
VOA's Mary Alice Salinas contributed to this report.