President Barack Obama on Thursday announced a historic visit to Cuba next month, speeding up the thaw in relations between the two Cold War former foes but igniting opposition from Republicans at home.
In the first U.S. presidential trip to the Caribbean nation in nearly 90 years, Obama will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, entrepreneurs, and “Cubans from different walks of life” during the trip on March 21 and 22, the White House said.
After decades of animosity following Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the two countries agreed in 2014 to move to reopen ties.
It was diplomatic feat that is likely to be a highlight of Obama’s foreign policy legacy along with the reaching of a nuclear deal with another long-time U.S. foe, Iran.
Although the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba remains in place, a presidential visit carries huge symbolic value and prestige.
“Next month, I’ll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama wrote on Twitter.
The Havana visit is likely to spark debate on Cuba policy in the campaign for the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, particularly in the swing voting state of Florida, where many anti-Castro Cuban-Americans live.
“Pitiful that Obama rewards Castros with visit to Cuba while conditions for the Cuban people are getting worse,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican congresswoman from south Florida.
Two candidates in the Republican race, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are conservative sons of Cuban immigrants and have criticized Obama for renewing ties with Cuba.
“We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world,” Obama said.
Obama had previously said he would visit the neighboring Communist-ruled nation if he were able to meet with political dissidents. The last sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
His administration has taken steps to expand commerce with the island nation, only 90 miles (145 km) from Florida.
Tourism has already surged. Airbnb, an online home-rental site, said U.S. rentals of homes in Cuba are booming. The countries have agreed to restore airline flights, and companies ranging from tractor manufacturers to telecommunications firms are assessing the market.
Obama still seeks to pressure U.S. lawmakers to remove the decades-old embargo on Cuba but Republicans control Congress and are unlikely to act soon.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, who supports ending the sanctions, said the Obama visit could help open Cuba up to the world.
“For Cubans accustomed to watching their government sputter down the last mile of socialism in a ’57 Chevy, imagine what they’ll think when they see Air Force One,” said Flake.
“Just think of the progress that can come from one day allowing all freedom-loving Americans to travel to Cuba,” Flake said in a statement.
In Havana on Thursday, news of the trip was welcomed.
“Peace reigns in this hemisphere,” said Jorge Felix, a home painter. “These are two countries who have confronted each other for fifty something years, and on this occasion the visit of the U.S. president to Cuba is reason for happiness and rejoicing,” he said.
“We are going to give him a box of Habanos,” for a real taste of Cuba, said Luis Fernandez, a retired cigar roller, referring to a Cuban cigar brand.
First lady Michelle Obama will also go on the trip, which is taking place during the president’s final year in office.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey and Megan Cassella; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, W Simon and Alistair Bell)