President Obama announced Thursday that he will make a historic trip to Cuba in March during which he intends to discuss human rights issues with Cuban President Raul Castro.
Obama will also meet with groups pushing for change in Cuba during the visit, the Associated Press reported. The announcement comes days after the U.S. and Cuba signed a deal to restore commercial air travel.
"We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world," Obama wrote on Twitter Thursday. "Next month, I’ll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people."
Obama has received criticism for improving relations with Cuba despite the country’s repressive regime. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate and son of Cuban immigrants, slammed the president for planning a visit to an "anti-American communist dictatorship."
14 months ago, I announced that we would begin normalizing relations with Cuba – and we've already made significant progress.
— President Obama (@POTUS) February 18, 2016
The president announced in December 2014 that the U.S. would begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Last summer, both countries reopened embassies in each others’ capitals. Business and travel restrictions on Cuba have also been eased, and the administration wants Congress to lift the trade embargo on Cuba.
"Ultimately, we believe that Congress should lift an embargo that is not to advancing the Cuban people’s individual well-being and human rights, and remove onerous restrictions that aim to dictate to Americans where they can and cannot travel," Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, wrote in a post on Medium published Thursday.
He wrote that the White House has already witnessed how the normalization of ties with Cuba "can improve the lives of the Cuban people," though Rhodes admitted that more progress needs to be made.
"While we do not seek to impose change on Cuba, we strongly believe that Cuba will benefit when the Cuban people can exercise their universal rights. President Obama has raised these issues in his discussions with President Castro, and will continue to do so," Rhodes wrote.
The March trip will mark the first time in nearly 70 years that a U.S. president has set foot on the island. The last sitting president to set foot on Cuba was Harry Truman, though his 1948 trip was limited to U.S.-controlled Guantanamo Bay and the naval base there.