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Why Obama knows his Cuba visit must happen now

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Desmond Boylan/AP

(Read caption) The Stars and Stripes and the Cuban national flag are placed together on the dashboard of a vintage American convertible in Havana, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. President Obama said that he will visit Cuba March 21 and 22, making him the first sitting president in more than half a century to visit the island nation.

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President Obama will visit Cuba in late March, the White House announced on Thursday – a historic trip intended to help thaw a geopolitical relationship frozen in mutual mistrust since the beginning of the cold war.

To the administration, the two-day trip is a logical extension of Mr. Obama’s Cuban outreach, one of his most significant foreign policy achievements. Last year, the two nations reopened embassies in Havana and Washington for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was president. Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro have agreed to restore commercial air travel and reopen other monetary and business ties.

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Congress has yet to act on Cuba’s most-desired change, however: a lifting of the US economic embargo imposed in 1960. Many Republicans resist rapprochement with an oppressive communist regime that continues to imprison dissidents and control what Cubans read and see in the media.

The White House position is that the embargo has had a long time to work, and it hasn’t. The old animosities have been in place for years, and the Castro brothers remain in power. Why not try a new approach? Open people-to-people exchanges, allow US cash from Cuban-Americans to flow back to relatives in greater amounts, reestablish diplomatic relations to reopen official dialogue.

Engagement is a better tool than isolation, said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes in a Thursday briefing for reporters.

“We will be in a better position to support human rights and to support a better life for the Cuban people by engaging them and raising these issues directly,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Obama will speak with dissidents and other antigovernment Cubans, according to administration officials. When he travels around the world, he often meets with US-selected representatives of a nation’s civil society, and the Cuba trip won’t be any different, said Rhodes.

Obama will be the first sitting US president to visit Cuba per se since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. President Harry Truman landed at the US-controlled Guantanamo Bay naval base on the southeastern coast of the island in 1948. Jimmy Carter has visited Cuba a number of times during his peripatetic ex-presidency.

First lady Michelle Obama will accompany her husband on the visit. It’s as yet unknown whether the first daughters will go along.

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By traveling to Cuba with about a year left in his presidency, Obama hopes to continue to influence how relations between the two nations continue to unfold in coming months. A later visit would have just been a “vacation,” Rhodes said. This trip is intended to push the Cubans to make such changes as additional access to wireless Internet and greater economic freedom for the self-employed.

The administration knows well that the fate of its Cuba policy rests upon the presidential vote a few months hence. Both Sens. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Marco Rubio (R) of Florida are sons of Cuban immigrants. Both have vowed to reverse Obama’s Cuba opening if elected.

At a town hall in South Carolina on Thursday, Senator Cruz said that Obama was making a mistake by visiting a Cuba that isn’t yet free.

Obama will “essentially act as an apologist” for the Castro regime by visiting the country now, Cruz said.

But the administration sees it differently. Officials frame engagement as a threat to the Castro regime, not a reward. By moving as fast as they can, White House aides hope to make the policy change “irreversible,” Rhodes said.

“That means that we want links between Cubans and Americans, and the links between our businesses and the engagement between our countries to gain such momentum that there’s an inevitability to the opening that is taking place, and to the increase in activity between our countries,” the deputy national security adviser said.