By Jeff Mason and Nelson Acosta
WASHINGTON/HAVANA (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with dissidents when he makes a historic visit to Cuba next month, the White House said on Thursday, but Republicans complained that the trip would only lend legitimacy to the island’s Communist government.
In the first U.S. presidential trip to the Caribbean nation since 1928, Obama will meet Cuban President Raul Castro, entrepreneurs, and people from different walks of life during the trip on March 21 and 22.
“He’ll be meeting with dissidents, with members of civil society, including those who certainly oppose the Cuban government’s policies,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.
After decades of animosity following Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the two countries agreed in 2014 to move to reopen ties but the U.S. embargo on Cuba remains and Washington frequently criticizes Havana’s human rights record.
Josefina Vidal, the director of U.S. affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said the Cuban government is willing to talk with the United States about anything including human rights.
“Cuba is open to speak to the U.S. government about any topic, including human rights,” Vidal told reporters after the
White House announced Obama’s trip.
Obama’s 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.
Two candidates in the Republican race, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are conservative sons of Cuban immigrants and foreign policy hawks.
Rubio urged Obama to reconsider his trip, citing political arrests made during the past year. “You will send the message to the oppressed Cuban people that you stand with their oppressors,” he said in a letter on Thursday.
The opening to Cuba was a diplomatic feat that is likely to be a highlight of Obama’s foreign policy legacy along with the nuclear deal he struck with another long-time U.S. foe, Iran.
Obama’s visit carries huge symbolic value and prestige as his administration takes steps to expand commerce with the island nation, only 90 miles (145 km) from Florida. The last sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge.
Cuba and Major League Baseball are discussing holding an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and Tampa Bay Rays in Havana on March 22, raising the possibility that Obama could throw the ceremonial first pitch at the first appearance by a Major League team in baseball-mad Cuba since 1999.
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.
A persistent congressional critic of the thaw in relations with Cuba, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said the trip would be a reward that the Cuban government did not deserve.
“Pitiful that Obama rewards Castros with visit to Cuba while conditions for the Cuban people are getting worse,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican from south Florida.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey and Megan Cassella in Washington and Daniel Trotta in Havana; Writing by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, W Simon and Alistair Bell)
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference after the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Rancho Mirage, California February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque