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Barack Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Cuba in 88 years

President Obama announces executive actions on US immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House.
President Obama announces executive actions on US immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House.
Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba in March, the strongest gesture yet to show that the two countries seek to normalize ties after nearly 60 years of official hostility.

The White House is expected to make the announcement later today, as top officials from the Treasury, Commerce, and State Departments meet with their Cuban counterparts in Washington, DC, to cement more business ties between the two nations. Obama will be the first sitting president to visit the island nation in 88 years, after Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928.

The news comes on the heels of an agreement earlier this week that will allow commercial air travel to resume between the two countries, an enormous boon to business interests on both sides. American companies have been clamoring to enter the Cuban market since Obama first announced the thaw in December 2014.

American internet providers have moved onto the island, and two cellphone companies, Verizon and Sprint, have already signed roaming agreements with Cuban cell carriers. Airbnb, the room-sharing service, is now representing private lodgings across the nation.

But the regulations that allow these companies to operate in Cuba, and allow Americans to visit there, exist under executive action – meaning they can be reversed by the next president. The two nations will not be able to restore full relations until America’s trade embargo is lifted, which would require an act of Congress.

For now, many Republicans in Congress still oppose any legislative action that would lower pressure on the Cuban government.

At a town hall meeting with Republican presidential candidates Wednesday night, Marco Rubio, perhaps the fiercest critic of Obama’s Cuba actions among the candidates, told host Anderson Cooper he wouldn’t visit Cuba as president, "not if it’s not a free Cuba."

Ted Cruz, also at the town hall, blasted Obama for "allowing billions of dollars to go to tyrants who hate America."

To Rubio and Cruz, Obama’s deal is taking a perilous gamble — that by bringing economic liberalization to the country, a relaxation of political authoritarianism will follow. They point out — and they are correct — that nothing in the deal Obama struck with the Cubans actually requires them to change their structure of government or curtail human rights violations. And until such a change occurs, they will continue to oppose lowering economic barriers.

But not all Republicans agree anymore on the orthodoxy of the embargo. Senator and erstwhile presidential candidate Rand Paul opposes it on libertarian grounds, and Donald Trump has declared it bad for business.

And no matter the next president’s stance on Cuban-American relations, it’s likely that the diplomacy President Obama has sought, culminating in a historic trip to the island, will make it untenable for him or her to change course.

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