By Jordan Fabian - 12/14/15 08:11 AM EST
President Obama says he wants to visit Cuba before he leaves office, but only if he gets to meet with political dissidents and conditions improve for the Cuban people.
"If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody," he added. “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President [Raúl] Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”
The president suggested a decision could come in "several months," but said a determining factor could be whether Castro has loosened restrictions on free speech and assembly and eased crackdowns on pro-democracy activists.
"My hope is that sometime next year we look at the conditions there and say, 'you know what, now would be a good time to shine a light on progress that's been made but also maybe to nudge the Cuban government in a new direction,'" Obama said.
There has been widespread speculation that Obama will visit Cuba during the final year of his presidency to mark his historic decision to open relations with the communist island nation after five decades of tensions.
Almost one year ago, Obama and Castro announced they would normalize diplomatic relations that were halted during the height of the Cold War. Both countries reopened long-shuttered embassies in their respective capitals earlier this year and have made strides in easing trade and travel restrictions.
Obama has twice this year met with Castro to discuss reestablishing ties.
The latest sign of the thaw came last week, when the U.S. and Cuba announced they would reestablish direct mail service after 52 years.
But human rights have remained a major sticking point between the two nations. Cuban authorities continue to arrest dissidents while some released political prisoners have been taken back into custody, a development that Obama acknowledged.
Dissident groups say at least 100 people were arrested last week on U.N. Human Rights Day. The Cuban government says six people were detained.
Cuba, meanwhile, has pressured Obama to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, a policy that dates back to the 1960s.
The Obama administration has acted on its own to allow more Americans to travel to and do business with Cuba, but large-scale business development can't occur until the embargo is eliminated.
But Republicans, and some Democrats, in Congress vehemently oppose lifting the embargo. They say it would reward the Castro government for mistreating its people.
Obama said he would make the case "again and again" during his last year in office that the embargo is a failed policy.
"It's conceivable that Congress chooses to take some action next year," he said.