Obama to visit Cuba in 'coming weeks'

Jérôme Cartillier
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The US and Cuba signed an agreement this week authorizing daily US commercial flights to the island for the first time in more than 50 years

The US and Cuba signed an agreement this week authorizing daily US commercial flights to the island for the first time in more than 50 years (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)

Washington (AFP) - President Barack Obama will announce Thursday the dates of a historic visit to Cuba in the coming weeks, in a powerful sign of the thaw between the former Cold War foes.

It would be the first visit to Cuba by a sitting US president since Cuba's 1959 revolution. The last American leader to visit the island while in office was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

As he approaches the end of his term, Obama has made clear that he is keen to visit Cuba.

He sees ending five decades of isolationist US policy as a top foreign policy achievement.

Obama also had said a visit would hinge on the communist regime curbing crackdowns on political dissent.

"The administration will announce the president's travel to Latin America, including Cuba, in the coming weeks," a US official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The two countries restored diplomatic relations in July after a historic rapprochement between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro the previous December.

Since then, the new openings have been small and incremental with the US trade embargo on the island still in place more than half a century on, with little prospect of repeal under a Republican-controlled Congress.

The Obama administration has instead focused on regulatory changes to ease travel and trade between the two countries, which have close family ties.

There are 1.8 million Cuban Americans and Cuba has a population of 11 million.

On Tuesday, the US and Cuba signed an agreement authorizing daily US commercial flights to the island for the first time in more than 50 years.

- Half century of sanctions -

US sanctions were imposed after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, moved toward revolutionary rule and then joined the Soviet bloc for decades.

Cash-strapped Cuba is seeking new sources of income as its main ally and financial backer, Venezuela, is mired in economic and political crisis, with oil prices very low.

Most of the Cuban economy is state-run, Soviet-style.

Average wages are $20 a month and Havana frets about any opening undoing its social progress since 1959. Cuba has repeatedly said it has no interest in multi-party politics.

Raul Castro took over the leadership from his brother Fidel in 2006 and was formally made president in 2008.

The Castros are traditional allies of fellow Latin American rebel movements that date back to the 1960s, such as the FARC in Colombia.

Trade delegations have been flocking to Cuba lately, interested in how to engage its highly trained work force, and natural assets such as its sun-drenched Caribbean beaches, a huge draw for tourists.

Ordinary US tourists without special US government permission, however, are still barred under the US trade embargo from spending money in Cuba.

And the Cuban government's baby steps on opening their economy clearly have not convinced those voting with their feet decisively since the past year's improvement in bilateral ties.

Thousands of Cubans have left in recent months over concerns that the diplomatic rapprochement will prompt Washington to drop its policy of giving them automatic residency and the right to work when they set foot in the United States.

- 'I wouldn't go' -

Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, told CNN he would not travel to Cuba "if it's not a free Cuba."

"They are a repressive regime. There's no elections in Cuba. There is no choice in Cuba," argued Rubio, who grew up in Las Vegas and Florida.

"I want the relationship between the US and Cuba to change but it has to be reciprocal. Look what we did with Burma or Myanmar, where the US opened up to them, but they made political changes."

Rubio maintained that more than a year since the US opening to Cuba, "the Cuban government remains as oppressive as ever."