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By David Adams @dadams7308
The White House sent one of its top officials to Miami on Friday to ease concerns in South Florida’s large Cuban American exile community over President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to the communist-run island.
At a town hall meeting Obama’s senior adviser and point man on Cuba policy, Ben Rhodes, said the president would be accompanied March 20-22 by a large bipartisan congressional delegation, as well as a group of Cuban Americans.
Pressed on whether Obama would raise human rights issues with Castro, Rhodes repeatedly assured the audience of mostly young Cuban Americans that the president’s new policy of engagement with Havana was more fruitful than continuing the old policy of isolation.
“We are Americans, we believe in the right to free assembly, the right to free speech …. we know the ways in which those rights are denied in Cuba, and this is a part of everything we’re doing,” he told the town hall, at Miami-Dade College. “We want the same thing. We want to get to the same place.”
The Cuba visit comes barely 14 months after the two countries agreed in late 2014 to open talks to restore diplomatic relations, ending five decades of hostility following Cuba's 1959 revolution. The two countries reopened embassies last year and recently agreed to restore regular scheduled airline operations, as well as holding talks on other commercial issues such as direct postal service.
The president will be accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama as well as the couple's teenage daughters, sources familiar with White House plans told Univision. The presence of the Obama family is highly anticipated in Cuba where 50% of the population is African-American or mixed race mulatto, while the Cuban communist party chiefs are mostly of white, Spanish descent.
Besides a one-on-one meeting with Cuban president Raul Castro, Obama’s schedule includes encounters with a group of 10-15 political dissidents, Rhodes said.
Obama also plans to deliver a speech to the Cuban people which the White House hopes will be broadcast live on state TV and radio. ”That message is very important,” Rhodes emphasized, adding that the White House would welcome input from Cuban Americans about what the president should say.
Cuban Americans are divided over Obama's visit though polls show a majority support it, while older exiles who left in the 1960s and lost homes and businesses, are deeply opposed, including South Florida's three Cuban American members of Congress, all Republicans.
The town hall was moderated by Roots of Hope, a group of young, bipartisan Cuban American students and professionals who the Obama administration has leaned on for advice. One audience member asked why White House was putting U.S. corporate business interests ahead of human rights, citing Cuba’s continuous harassment of dissidents who speak out against the government.
"You can't trust the Cuban government," said Eliecer Jimenez, a film maker who left Cuba last year after he said he was threatened by government security agents. "I think it's super good that Obama is going to Cuba, but I hope he tells the Cuban government it has to change its ways."
Rhodes said better commercial relations with Cuba would help open the door for other reforms. “What we put at the center of our policy was what would make life better for the Cuban people,” he said, referring to efforts to promote greater private sector enterprise in Cuba and wider access to the Internet.
“That’s what this is about. It’s not, Cuba is a fun place to visit ... (or) … the president wants to go down there and just soak in the mystique. No, this is about … our judgment of what is best for the Cuban people,” he said.
Rhodes recognized that so far Cuba's response to overtures of investment by American companies "was not of the scale we would like," adding that he hoped the trip would help accelerate an opening of the island's economy.
Several major U.S. companies, inclusing AT&T, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and Marriott International are reportedly close to completing deals in Cuba. Cuba may also lift a 12% tax on U.S. dollar transactions in the island, sources told Univision.
“If you want the Cuban people to be more empowered to make their own decisions about their own lives, we believe that opening things up, allowing engagement, allowing people to people engagement, (and) allowing the flow of information in and out of Cuba, is going to be the most powerful thing to allow the Cuban people to make those decisions,” he said.
The U.S. government was no longer "in the business of bringing about regime change” in Cuba, he added. "People used to think we could impose change on Cuba. I think Cubans are going to change Cuba," he added. "We are simply trying to facilitate that."
While not everyone might agree with the policy, Rhodes said the White House had been careful to consult Cuban Americans every step of the way. During months of secret negotiations with Cuban officials that preceded the Dec 17 announcement, as well as subsequent negotiations, the White House has extensively reached out to members of the Cuban exile community, especially the younger generation, Rhodes said.
Obama's policy shift on Cuba "was not an easy call for the president politically," Rhodes said, adding that the decision to engage Cuba was taken in large part because of encouragement from the Cuban American community. "I don’t know that we would have done this … if we hadn’t seen there were people who would support this," he said.