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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will visit Cuba later this year – a first from a sitting U.S. President in nearly a century.
The White House said Thursday the president and first lady will be in Cuba on March 21st and 22nd. While in Cuba, President Obama will meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro and members of the Cuban community.
“A presidential visit is a forcing mechanism and I think it has a potential benefit of making our government and the Cuban government do as much as we can to make normalization move forward,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes during a press conference.
Rhodes said, “In our judgement, engagement is a far more effective means in engaging issues than isolation.”
Rhodes said he does not expect the president to meet with Fidel Castro.
The president took to social media earlier to talk about his upcoming trip.
White House officials said the trip is meant to build on the progress made in normalizing relations between both countries and advancing commercial and people to people ties. They said the president will also express support for human rights in Cuba.
“He’ll be meeting with dissidents, with members of the civil society…critics of the Cuban government,” said Rhodes. “On human rights, we regularly raise a whole host of issues…that will be part of the discussion as well.”
When asked if President Obama will have a chance to address the Cuban people, Rhodes said they are looking to set something up but everything is still preliminary.
Rhodes added the trip is also meant to make sure the renewed relations and policy changes between both countries becomes irreversible.
“We believe that the time is right to go and lean in and try to get as much done on this trip as we can and try to create as much momentum as we can to carry that forward throughout the year,” said Rhodes.
Josefina Vidal with the Cuban Foreign Ministry had something to say about the president’s trip.
“His visit will represent a step forward in the improvement of relations between Cuba and the United States. Of course in order to achieve the normalization of relations between the two countries, the blockade has to be lifted and the territory occupied by the Naval base in Guantanamo has to be returned,” said Vidal.
This is the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba in nearly 90 years. The last U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
But not everyone is for the trip.
Florida Senator and Presidential candidate Marco Rubio sent the president a letter urging him to cancel the trip, writing in part, “A presidential visit to Cuba absent of any concessions from its government is a dangerous idea, and I urge you to reconsider.”
Fellow GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz had a similar perspective.
“I think it’s a real mistake. I think that the president ought to instead be pushing for a free Cuba,” said Cruz, who is also of Cuban descent.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agrees.
“The trip is shameful because as the President of the United States is supposed to be the standard-bearer for the values that we stand for, for our American ideals,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
She also took to social media to voice her opposition to the trip.
Ros-Lehtinen believes that during the trip, the Castro regime will make a big show of releasing political prisoners only to round them up again after President Obama leaves.
The White House says the First Lady’s role is also important in this trip.
“She’s an enormously popular figure in different countries around the world, generates a lot of good will,” said Rhodes. “Having this kind of historic opening to the Cuban people, I think it’s very important that she’s there and that her voice is a part of the conversation.”
Following the president’s stop in Cuba, President Obama and the first family will head to Argentina on March 23rd and meet with the new president Mauricio Macri.
The two presidents are set to discuss Macri’s reform agenda and his contribution to the defense of human rights in the region.
The visit is meant to increase cooperation between both governments when it comes to trade and investment, renewable energy, climate change and citizen security.
“We anticipate that they will be a closer partner on a range of issues,” said Rhodes. “It mirrors the sentiment seen across the region.”
He is scheduled to leave March 24th.
It has been nearly two decades since the last bilaterally focused visit by a U.S. President to Argentina – Latin America’s third largest country.
Click here to read more about U.S.- Cuba Relations.