The Obama administration will evaluate the progress of its new Cuba policy by considering issues such as the arrests of dissidents, access to the Internet and the development of the island’s private sector, according to participants in a recent White House meeting.
The administration would like to see improvements in those areas when it considers a possible visit of President Barack Obama to Cuba, but such progress would not be a prerequisite for the visit as White House spokesman Josh Earnest has indicated, White House and State Department officials told participants in the meeting, which was closed to the news media.
Several people invited to the Wednesday gathering, who asked that they not be identified, told El Nuevo Herald that the government officials mentioned that a possible decision on a trip would be evaluated early next year or in January. The White House denied that any specific month was mentioned.
Participants said Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Council adviser, told the gathering that a possible Obama trip to Cuba would be evaluated at the beginning of 2016, based on the progress achieved by Cuban authorities on issues that the U.S. government considers to be important, such as human rights.
Rhodes also compared a possible Obama visit to Cuba with the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, one source at the meeting told the newspaper.
A presidential trip to Cuba “would be a historic opportunity to solidify the closing of a page from the Cold War” and “a natural next step,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He added, however, that the White House does not appear to have decided on a date or specific conditions for the visit, specially because it depends “on what the Cubans do, and that’s not something that the United States can control.”
Cuban-American members of Congress have criticized the president’s Cuba policies, saying that he obtained little from the Cuban government in areas such as human rights and civil liberties in exchange for his decision to ease U.S. sanctions on Havana and resume full diplomatic relations.
“While human rights activists are imprisoned and jailed for speaking out for freedom and justice, the Obama administration is rejoicing and looking the other way today as embassies are opened,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, said Monday as the two countries opened embassies in Havana and Washington.
The meeting at the White House was part of an effort by the administration to “involve the Cuban-American community in President Obama’s policy toward Cuba,” Katherine Vargas, White House spokeswoman for the Spanish-language media, said in a statement.
Administration officials at the gathering talked about the next steps in the U.S. policy on Cuba and possible flexibilities in the areas of travel to Cuba and financial dealings. The sources said that one of the State Department officials at the meeting, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, said that the State Department already has a team studying possible solutions to the issue of Cuban compensation for expropriated U.S. properties, a thorny dispute that the U.S. government wants to resolve as quickly as possible.
Although several participants in the White House meeting said the administration is already working on a package of new regulations to improve U.S-Cuba relations, described by one knowledgeable source as “modest,” Vargas said she had nothing to announce on travel or trade regulations.
“The president has clearly highlighted his support for measures that improve trade and travel in order to increase people-to-people contacts, support civil society in Cuba, support the growth of the nascent private sector in Cuba and improve access to information from, to and among the Cuban people,” the spokesperson said.
“The president also has issued a call to Congress to end the embargo,” she added.
Meanwhile, a GOP-controlled Senate panel voted Thursday to lift a decades-long ban on travel to Cuba, giving a boost to Obama’s moves to ease travel restrictions and open up relations with the island, the Associated Press reported.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also voted to repeal a law prohibiting banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.
This article contains material from the Associated Press.