When Obama walks off Air Force One onto the red carpet at Jose Marti airport in Havana Sunday, he'll be taking another big step towards normal relations with the island, and kicking another hole in the wall of isolation that the U.S. spent decades trying to build around Cuba.
"The Cold War has been over for a long time," Obama said, before his historic handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama last year. "I'm not interested in having battles that, frankly, started before I was born."
Obama will be the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship in 1928. (Harry Truman dropped by during a Caribbean cruise 20 years later, but didn't go beyond the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.)
The president hopes to cement the new U.S. policy of engagement with Cuba that he first announced 15 months ago.
"We very much want to make the process of normalization irreversible," said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who played a key role in secret talks that led up to the opening.
During his two-day trip to Cuba, the president will meet with Castro as well as Cuban dissidents. He'll deliver a televised address to the Cuban people. And he'll take in an exhibition baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays. First Lady Michelle Obama is joining her husband on the trip, along with their daughters, Sasha and Malia.
"Let's not forget that the Castro regime has been guilty of countless human rights abuses," House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday. "Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the president will bring up the need for reform during his visit."
The White House says Obama will raise the issue of human rights when he meets with Castro on Monday. He'll also hold a separate meeting Tuesday with human rights activists and others who are critical of the Castro government.
"We know that change won't come to Cuba overnight," National Security Advisor Susan Rice said. "But the old approach — trying to isolate Cuba for more than 50 years — clearly didn't work. We believe that engagement — including greater trade, travel, and ties between Americans and Cubans — is the best way to help create opportunity and spur progress for the Cuban people."
Several dozen members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — are expected to join the president's delegation. Business people will also be tagging along in hopes of uncovering new economic opportunities.
While the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains in effect, the administration has been chipping away it over the last 15 months. The Commerce and Treasury Departments have steadily eased restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. On Tuesday, the administration opened the door for individual Americans to travel to Cuba for "people-to-people" purposes, without having to sign up for an expensive group tour. Direct mail service between the U.S. and Cuba resumed this past week. And U.S. airlines are expected to launch scheduled service to the island later this year, with up to 110 flights a day.
The diplomatic thaw has prompted a surge in U.S. visits to Cuba, located just 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida.
So far, the U.S. overtures have prompted only a limited response from the Cuban government, both economically and politically. American companies, given a green light by Washington to do business in Cuba, still encounter red tape in Havana. And Cuban dissidents still face repression from the authoritarian Castro regime.
Outside experts say while Cuba has made some positive moves, they've been small, and it's not clear when — or even if — more progress will be achieved.
"The great problem, as we know, is a journey of a thousand miles starts with a few steps," said Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. "But so does a journey of a only few steps."
Some critics argue Obama should have waited to visit Cuba until the country moves further down the path of reform. But Rhodes disagrees.
"Given the choice between going in December when, frankly, it would just kind of be a vacation down to Cuba, or going now and trying to get some business done, we believe that the time is right," Rhodes said.
The president's outreach to Cuba has also been welcomed by other leaders in the hemisphere, with whom the previous policy of trying to isolate Cuba had been a liability.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Obama and his family are traveling to Cuba tonight. It's not far - just 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida. But Air Force One will be weighed down with a lot of symbolic baggage. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from Havana. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: This is going to be a crazy scene - right? - when the president lands in Havana.
HORSLEY: When that 747 with the United States of America painted on the side touches down at Jose Marti Airport, it is going to be a big deal. He's the first president to come here since Calvin Coolidge. And his national security adviser, Susan Rice, says this is the culmination of a diplomatic thaw that was first announced 15 months ago but that reverses half a century of official isolation.
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SUSAN RICE: Today, the American flag flies over our reopened embassy in Cuba. More Americans are visiting Cuba than at any time in the last 50 years. More American companies are looking to invest in Cuba.
HORSLEY: This opening to Cuba is certainly one of this president's major foreign-policy initiatives, along with the Iranian nuclear deal. And like that controversial agreement, this outreach to Cuba required setting aside decades of hostility and trying to find some common ground.
MARTIN: So polls show a majority of Americans support all this outreach to Cuba, but not everyone's celebrating. There's still some opposition in Congress, and the formal embargo is still in place, right?
HORSLEY: Absolutely, although the White House is lobbying lawmakers to lift the embargo. But Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan says Congress is not budging. Ryan said just a few days ago the embargo remains the law of the land.
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REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: The Castro regime has been guilty of countless human rights abuses. This is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and to fugitives. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the president will bring up the need for reform during his visit.
HORSLEY: Actually, the White House says that Obama will raise the issue of human rights abuses when he meets tomorrow with President Raul Castro. He's also holding a separate meeting on Tuesday with a group of Cuban dissidents. There have been some reports of dissidents being harassed and detained in the days leading up to the president's visit. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon here.
MARTIN: I understand, obviously, there's going to be a lot of business on this trip, but a little pleasure too. The president is going to meet with some Cuban entrepreneurs, and then he's going to go see a little baseball.
HORSLEY: Yeah, baseball diplomacy will be in full force during this visit. Obviously, it's a favorite pastime in both countries. It's a symbol of the long history the United States shares with Cuba. So the Tampa Bay Rays will be playing an exhibition game here in Havana against the Cuban national team. But even that is not all fun and games. Major League Baseball is in talks with the Cuban government on a deal that would allow Cuban ballplayers to play for major league teams without having to defect first. And the Treasury Department cleared the way for that last week. That is one of many steps the administration has taken to whittle away at the embargo and to promote travel and trade with Cuba.
MARTIN: All that has led to a spike in the number of Americans who are visiting Cuba. But I gather there haven't necessarily been a lot of similar changes made on the Cuban side?
HORSLEY: No, and there are some skeptics who say that the president really should have waited to do this trip until there had been more movement from the Cubans. The administration, though, says the time was ripe. And even if Cuba doesn't move, they argue, this diplomatic outreach was the right move for the administration to make. The decades-old policy of trying to isolate Cuba was very unpopular in the rest of Latin America and had the perverse effect of isolating the United States.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley in Havana. Scott, I think you should take some salsa lessons or something like that.
MARTIN: I'm just saying.
HORSLEY: I'll do my best.
MARTIN: Thanks so much.
HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.