By Justin Sink - 01/05/15 06:19 PM EST
President Obama hopes to recruit Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to help pressure the Cuban Castro regime to undertake reform efforts during talks this week at the White House, a senior administration official said Monday.
Obama and Nieto will meet Tuesday in the president's first face-to-face gathering with a Latin American leader since announcing last month his plans to normalize diplomatic relations with Havana in more than a half-century.
"The leaders will discuss our new approach to Cuba, which will create opportunities or us to work together with key partners like Mexico to encourage positive change in Cuba and reinforce democratic principles," a senior administration official said.
Obama announced in December plans to reestablish a U.S. embassy on the island, as well as ease some trade and travel restrictions currently in place. The president will be unable to fully repeal the embargo imposed during the 1960s without congressional action, but the efforts are expected to substantially ease access to the communist nation.
Peña Nieto's administration has looked to forge close ties with Havana, and the Mexican leader traveled to Cuba to meet with both former leader Fidel Castro and his brother and current president Raúl Castro. The Mexican government also waived some 70 percent of a $487 million debt to its trade development bank as an overture to the Castro regime.
The White House says it hopes now the two governments can work together to push Cuba toward democratic reforms.
"We view it as very important to be able to work with Mexico, again, a country that has a long historical relationship with Cuba and is also a neighbor of Cuba, to be able to move this forward," the official said.
The meeting also comes as the administration is facing tough questions over part of the deal it brokered to normalize relations. The Castro regime agreed to release 53 political prisoners as part of the deal, although U.S. officials indicated Monday not all the individuals had been released from prison.
That came as the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Recognition released a report Monday saying arrests of dissidents had increased by nearly 100 people in December compared to the prior month.
But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday there was "no reason to think that they are walking back any part of the agreement" reached last month.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki added that pressing the Cuban government for greater freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly "will certainly be part of our ongoing dialogue."
"One of the reasons why we moved forward with the change in policy is because we want to empower Cuban citizens to give them greater ability to promote positive change going forward," Psaki said. "And a critical focus of our announced actions include continued strong focus on improved human rights conditions, of which we know that the situation in Cuba remains poor."