President Obama will travel to Cuba in March, becoming the first sitting president to travel to the communist island nation in almost 90 years.
“Next month, I'll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama wrote on his Twitter account Thursday.
"We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly," Obama tweeted. "America will always stand for human rights around the world."
The two-day trip will take place March 21–22 amid a broader trip to Latin America that includes a stop in Argentina. The president will be joined by first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaFirst lady offers touching farewell to White House staffers Michelle Obama on election night: 'I went to bed' The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE.
The historic visit will serve as a major opportunity to build closer relations with Cuba, which was isolated from the United States for five decades over Cold War-era divisions.
The president's trip to Cuba has been long anticipated since Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced in December 2014 they would normalize diplomatic relations.
Last summer, the U.S. and Cuba reopened embassies in their respective capitals, and the countries have worked to re-establish long-severed trade and travel links. Both nations announced this week they would resume direct commercial air travel.
A presidential visit has been seen as the next major step toward repairing U.S.-Cuba relations.
Obama will be the first president to visit Cuba since 1928, when Calvin Coolidge visited the island. Former President Jimmy Carter traveled there in 2002 at the request of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The president will meet with Raúl Castro and “engage members of civil society, entrepreneurs and Cubans from different walks of life,” the White House said in a statement. He is not expected to meet with Fidel Castro, who led Cuba's 1959 revolution and is the brother of the current president.
Obama said last winter that he would like to visit Cuba before he leaves office, but only if humanitarian conditions improve for the Cuban people and he has free rein to meet with political dissidents.
"I am very much interested in going to Cuba, but I think the conditions have to be right," Obama told Yahoo News. "If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody."
The White House did not specify what steps the Cuban government has taken to improve the humanitarian situation for its citizens.
In a blog post, Rhodes said the administration has seen progress in the Cuban government allowing citizens greater Internet access and the opportunity to open private businesses. But it said Obama continues to have “serious differences” with Castro over human rights.
Rhodes acknowledged to reporters the the U.S. "would like to see more" progress on human rights. But he defended the decision to visit, saying it would allow more time for the U.S. to push Cuba to make reforms.
Going next month rather than in December, Rhodes said, is the difference between "getting business done" and taking a "vacation."
Obama’s decision to pursue closer ties with Cuba is a major part of his legacy; it fulfills a commitment dating back to his first campaign to use diplomacy to engage with longtime U.S. adversaries.
But the diplomatic thaw has its limits. The U.S. embargo, which prevents both countries from pursuing full trade ties, still stands thanks to opposition to lifting it from many Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.
Obama’s trip is also sure to add venom into the 2016 presidential campaign, where almost all Republicans running to replace Obama have condemned the move.
Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzPentagon's suppressed waste report only tip of the inefficient machine Markos Moulitsas: Kill the filibuster Ark., Texas senators put cheese dip vs. queso to the test MORE (R-Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioBrown-Mandel Ohio Senate race will be brutal referendum on Trumpism Ohio Republican announces 2018 challenge to Sherrod Brown Haley to meet with senators during Washington trip MORE (R-Fla.), both Cuban-Americans who are running for president, said during a town hall in South Carolina on Wednesday they would not travel to Cuba as long as it remains under communist control.
"Not if it's not a free Cuba," said Rubio when asked if he would visit.
Cruz said Obama would “act as an apologist” by visiting the island and meeting with Castro.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba and now represents a Miami district in Congress, called it "absolutely shameful" for Obama to visit her native country.
“For more than 50 years Cubans have been fleeing the Castro regime yet the country which grants them refuge, the United States, has now decided to quite literally embrace their oppressors,” she said in a statement.
Rhodes pushed back against that criticism, noting that it's counterproductive to leave the embargo and place and continue to isolate Cuba.
"It's not as if one more year of the embargo is going to bring about transformational change," he said.
- This story was updated at 1:40 p.m.