By Patricia Zengerle and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will visit Cuba in the coming weeks, a senior administration official said on Wednesday, making a historic trip in the final year of his presidency that will mark a turning point in U.S. relations with a long-time Cold War foe.
The White House plans to announce the visit on Thursday. The Cuba stop will be part of a broader trip to Latin America.
The visit to Havana by Obama would cap what administration officials see as one of his legacy foreign policy achievements: normalizing relations with Cuba and taking steps toward expanded commercial relations after a 54-year freeze.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shocked the world in December 2014 by announcing the former adversaries would move to normalize relations.
The Republican majority in Congress has defied Obama’s call to rescind the five-decade-old embargo, so he has used his executive authority to relax trade and travel restrictions.
Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both sons of Cuban immigrants, have been sharply critical of his opening to Cuba in the absence of political change there.
A visit by Obama to Havana in late March would correspond with the finalization of a peace deal for Colombia that was encouraged and sponsored by Castro.
The Colombian government and the FARC rebel group are expected to finalize a peace deal by March 23 in Havana that would end a 50-year civil war in the South American nation.
Obama said in a December interview with Yahoo News that he hoped to visit Cuba in 2016 but only if enough progress had been made in bilateral relations and he was able to meet political dissidents as part of an effort to “nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.”
A Cuban foreign ministry official said in reaction to the December interview that Obama was welcome to visit Cuba but not meddle in its internal affairs.
It was not immediately clear what detailed arrangements would be made for the trip or how diplomats from the two nations proposed to bridge that divide as part of the plans.
Washington and Havana restored diplomatic ties in July but commerce remains limited by the U.S. trade embargo, which includes a ban on American tourism to the island.
On Tuesday, American and Cuban officials signed an arrangement to restore scheduled air services between the two countries after half a century.
Rubio wasted no time in criticizing the reported plans for the trip. Asked at a CNN town hall event in South Carolina whether he would visit Cuba, Rubio replied: “Not if it’s not a free Cuba.”
At the same event, Cruz also criticized Obama’s move, saying he would not go to Cuba “as long as the Castros are in power.”
“What Obama has shown to our enemies is weakness and appeasement,” Cruz said, lumping together Obama’s steps toward improving U.S. relations with Cuba and Iran.
“I think it’s a real mistake. I think the president instead ought to be pushing for a free Cuba,” he said. Instead, he will go and “essentially act as an apologist.”
The last and only sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Jeff Mason in Washington; Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki, Matt Spetalnick; and Steve Holland; Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for a news conference at the close of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque