Obama faces criticism over plans for historic visit to Cuba

Obama's visit would be the first to Cuba by a sitting president since 1928. Picture: AP
Obama's visit would be the first to Cuba by a sitting president since 1928. Picture: AP
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Barack Obama will make a ­historic visit to Cuba in the coming weeks, becoming the first United States president to set foot on the island in nearly seven decades.

The brief visit in mid-March will mark a watershed moment for relations between the two nations – Communist Cuba was estranged from the US for more than half a century until Mr Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro moved toward rapprochement more than a year ago.

Since then, the nations have reopened embassies in Washington, DC and Havana and have moved to restore commercial air travel. A presidential visit is seen as a key step towards bridging the divide.

Mr Obama’s stop in Cuba will be part of a broader trip to Latin America that the president will take next month.

Though he had long been expected to visit Cuba in his final year, word of his travel plans drew immediate resistance from opponents of warmer ties with Cuba, including Republican presidential candidates.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose father fled to the US from Cuba in the 1950s, said Mr Obama shouldn’t visit while the Castro family is in power. And Florida Senator Marco Rubio, another child of Cuban immigrants, lambasted Mr Obama for visiting what he called an “anti-American communist dictatorship”.

With less than a year left in office, Mr Obama has been eager to make rapid progress on restoring economic and diplomatic ties to cement the warming relations with Cuba.

Following secret negotiations between their governments, Mr Obama and Mr Castro announced in late 2014 they would begin normalising ties, and months later held the first face-to-face meeting between an American and a Cuban president since 1958. Not since President Calvin Coolidge went to Havana in January 1928 has a sitting US president been to the Cuban capital.

But Mr Obama, facing steadfast opposition, has been unable to deliver on the former Cold War foe’s biggest request: lifting the US economic embargo.

Opponents argue that repealing the sanctions would reward a government still engaging in human rights abuses and stifling democratic aspirations.