February 18, 2016 at 12:25 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Obama to make historic trip to Cuba

National Prayer Breakfast, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama on Feb. 18, 2016, announced that he will visit Cuba next month. (Image courtesy of YouTube)

President Obama on Tuesday announced that he will travel to Cuba next month.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are scheduled to be on the Communist island from March 21-22 before traveling to Argentina. Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge traveled to Havana in 1928.

The White House in a statement said that Obama will hold a “bilateral meeting” with Cuban President Raul Castro. It added the president will also “engage with members of civil society, entrepreneurs and Cubans from different walks of life.”

“In Cuba, the president will work to build on the progress we have made towards normalization of relations with Cuba — advancing commercial and people-to-people ties that can improve the well-being of the Cuban people, and expressing our support for human rights,” said the White House.

It remains unclear whether Obama will meet with Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, who advocates in support of LGBT-specific issues as the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education. White House officials on Thursday did not say whether Obama would meet with independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates while on the island.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress met with Juana Mora Cedeño, an independent Cuban LGBT rights advocate, in Feb. 2015 during a luncheon at U.S. Chief of Mission Jeffrey DeLaurentis’ Havana home.

Trip ‘only legitimizes’ the Castro government

Obama is scheduled to travel to Cuba more than a year after the U.S. announced the restauration of diplomatic relations with the Communist island that ended in 1961.

Richard Blanco, a gay Cuban American poet who took part in Obama’s second inauguration, is among those who attended the official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana last August. Cuba’s embassy in Northwest Washington reopened the month before.

“It’s wonderful that he’s going on this historic trip,” Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida, who is Cuban American, told the Washington Blade on Thursday. “I would encourage the White House to arrange for President Obama to meet with the brave LGBT Cubans who have launched a petition drive to push Cuba to adopt marriage equality for same-sex couples.”

Francisco Rodriguez Cruz, a Cuban LGBT rights advocate and blogger who supports Mariela Castro, also applauded Obama.

“It is a brave gesture on his part,” Rodriguez told the Blade from Havana.

Rodriguez said he would like Obama to discuss the U.S. embargo against Cuba and other “bilateral relations on new issues that would have to be resolved between both nations.”

“I would particularly like it if Obama were to speak about the rights of LGBTI people, and highlight U.S. advances and limitations on this topic as an important international reference to incorporate our experience in the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Rodriguez told the Blade.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-born Florida congresswoman who champions LGBT rights, is among those who blasted Obama over his decision to travel to the island.

“There has been no progress in regards to human rights on the Castro brothers’ island gulag nor have conditions in Cuba improved since this administration began providing the regime with concession after concession,” said the Florida Republican in a statement. “A visit by President Obama more than one year after his unilateral concessions to the regime will only legitimize the Castros’ repressive behavior.”

Juana Mora Cedeño, Havana, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Juana Mora Cedeño speaks with the Washington Blade in Havana on May 18, 2015. The advocate in February 2015 met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) while she was in the Cuban capital. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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