Obama’s plan to visit Cuba draws focus to human rights

President Obama announced plans to visit Cuba next month, sparking debate over whether the timing of the visit – or the decision to visit Cuba at all – was a wise one. One major point of contention has been whether the visit would help accelerate the progress of human rights and freedoms for Cuban people.

The president’s plan to visit on March 21 and 22 comes more than a year after the Obama administration and Cuba made an agreement to restore diplomatic ties in 2014. In Havana, President Obama will meet with President Raul Castro to speak about the governments’ differing opinions on democracy, freedom of expression and human rights.

Obama said he is confident that the visit, which will make him the first sitting U.S. president to travel to Cuba in nearly 90 years, will advance his efforts to restore diplomatic relations after more than half a century of tension and conflict between the neighboring countries.

Some conservatives have said that the president’s visit contradicts his previous pledge to not visit the country until progress was made on granting new freedoms to the Cuban people. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents migrated from Cuba in the 1950s, said the thaw in bilateral ties in 2014 had not led to any improvements in Cuba’s human rights record.

“The Cuban government remains as oppressive as ever,” he said.

Obama’s announcement has also been criticized on the grounds that the visit will give legitimacy to Cuba’s oppressive regime. According to conservative news network Breitbart, Cuban state media has already jumped on the opportunity to twist Obama’s visit into evidence that there was never a human rights issue under the Cuban regime. Indeed, an article published Friday by Cuba’s communist propaganda newspaper Granma claims Obama’s visit to Havana “disproves” decades of evidence that the Cuban regime violates the human rights of its citizens, even though several peaceful protests just this weekend led to the arrest of over 170 Cuban dissidents.

Obama has defended the trip by maintaining that the visit would build on the 2014 decision to begin a new chapter in the U.S.’ relationship with Cuba. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has praised the U.S.-Cuban engagement, according to Voice of America, and Democratic rival Bernie Sanders called Obama’s plan to visit Cuba “a major step forward.”

For his part, Castro has said that he is prepared to address the U.S. and Cuba’s widely divergent views on human rights and press freedoms. According to TeleSUR, Obama said human rights will be a topic of discussion in his upcoming talks with Castro, along with discussions of making trade easier, making it easier for Cubans to access the Internet and to start their own businesses.

A senior Cuban official also confirmed that human rights issues – as well as the blockade on Cuba and the status of U.S.-occupied Guantanamo Bay – will be up for discussion.

“Cuba is open to speaking to the government of the United States about any topic, including human rights,” said Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s director general for the U.S., in an interview with TeleSUR. “Cuba also has its own opinions on the state of human rights in many countries, including the United States.”

To date, Cuba has said that restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries depends on the resolution of sticking points like the blockade and Guantanamo Bay, according to TeleSUR. But since the U.S. embargo on Cuba cannot be lifted without congressional approval, and Congress is currently controlled by Republicans, this seems unlikely to happen before Obama leaves office in January 2017.

Still, while the details of the president’s itinerary remains to be seen, it seems likely that human rights will be on the his agenda during the upcoming visit.

“I’ve always said that change won’t come to Cuba overnight,” Obama said. “But as Cuba opens up, it will mean more opportunity and resources for ordinary Cubans. And we’re starting to see some progress.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based journalist covering news, health and human rights in Latin America and worldwide. As a second-generation immigrant from Greece, Lisa’s objective is to encourage awareness of global issues and cultures through her stories. She has a B.A. in psychology and Spanish from Lawrence University in her home state of Wisconsin. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.