By Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, March 17 – President Barack Obama plans to lay out his vision for U.S.-Cuba relations in a major speech during next week’s historic visit to Havana aimed at making his opening to America’s former Cold War foe “irreversible,” the White House said on Wednesday.
Previewing Obama’s three-day trip, U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes expressed hope that Tuesday’s scheduled “speech to the Cuban people” would be broadcast throughout the island and said Cuba’s Communist government had not raised any objections to doing so.
But Rhodes could not confirm whether the event, which will take place at Havana’s legendary Gran Teatro, would actually be carried by Cuba’s state-run media, saying, “We’ll see how that transpires.”
Obama, who will be the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, arrives on Sunday and holds talks on Monday with Cuban President Raul Castro, followed by what Rhodes described as a joint “press event” and a state dinner.
Obama’s meeting with Cuban dissidents on Tuesday will include prominent activists of his own choosing, Rhodes said. Despite Cuban leaders’ view of such meetings as interference in the island’s internal affairs, Rhodes said there was no reason to believe the government would block any invitees from participating.
“If there are any impediments to that meeting we would be very clear about this,” Rhodes said. He declined to name any of those who would attend.
Obama will arrive just days after unveiling sweeping new measures to make it far easier for Americans to visit Cuba and for the island’s government to conduct international trade.
Obama’s critics have accused him of giving up too much in return for too little from Cuban leaders and of now taking a premature “victory lap.”
The Obama administration insists that engagement will benefit the Cuban people and open up the island to U.S. business – though Cuban leaders have been slow to make economic reforms. At the same time, the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba remains, with little chance Congress will lift it anytime soon.
Rhodes said Obama’s speech “will be a very important moment in the president’s trip, an opportunity for him to describe the course that we’re on, to review the complicated history between our two countries but also to look forward to the future.”
“We very much want to make the process of normalization irreversible,” he told reporters on a conference call.
Obama’s aides hope that getting more U.S companies invested in Cuba and loosening up travel to the island will make it almost impossible for traditionally pro-business Republicans to roll back the thaw if they win the White House in November.
Traveling with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia, the president plans to start his visit late on Sunday with a tour of the cultural sites of Old Havana. He will also meet Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a key role in the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic breakthrough in December 2014, at Havana’s cathedral, Rhodes said.