Barack Obama.jpg
Photograph: EPA/IAN LANGSDON/POOL MAXPPP OUT

US President Barack Obama confirmed Thursday that he will travel to Cuba in March, in a trip that will make him the first sitting president to visit the island in 88 years.

"Next month, I'll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people," Obama wrote on his official Twitter feed.

The president and First Lady Michelle Obama are set to travel to Cuba on March 21-22, before continuing to Argentina on March 23-24.

In Havana, Obama is to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro as well as members of civil society and entrepreneurs and Cubans "from different walks of life," the White House said.

"We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly," Obama tweeted. "America will always stand for human rights around the world."

In Buenos Aires, Obama is to meet with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, who took office in December.

The US broke off relations with Cuba in 1961 during the Cold War, and imposed a wide-ranging embargo on the island.

In December 2014, Obama and Castro, the brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, announced plans to resume diplomatic relations and a prisoner swap following secret, Vatican-brokered talks. Embassies were reopened in July in Washington and Havana.

The last serving US president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in January 1928. Jimmy Carter, who was president from 1977-81, has made visits to Cuba in 2002 and 2011.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest praised the visit as "another demonstration of the president's commitment to chart a new course for US-Cuban relations and connect US and Cuban citizens through expanded travel, commerce and access to information."

Obama will be seeking to build "commercial and people-to-people ties that can improve the well-being of the Cuban people, and expressing our support for human rights," Earnest said.

Diplomats have spent the months since then hammering out agreements on travel, mail service and other issues, capped by the reopening of embassies in July and meetings between Obama and Castro on the sidelines of international summits.

The trip came in for immediate criticism from many in the opposition conservative Republican Party.

US Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who represents Florida, which has a large Cuban population, responded to initial reports of Obama's travel plans at an event Wednesday night in South Carolina for Republican presidential candidates.

Asked if he would take such a trip, Rubio said: "Not if there's not a free Cuba."

He called the Havana government "a repressive regime. There's no elections in Cuba, there's no choice in Cuba, and so my whole problem: I want the relationship between the US and Cuba to change, but it has to be reciprocal."

Rubio accused Obama of failing to demand reforms of the Cuban government.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on western hemisphere issues, said it was "hard to overstate the historic significance of Obama's upcoming visit to Cuba."

"Not long ago Cuba and the US were completely estranged from one another. Now Obama will go to Havana and will no doubt get a very emotional and effusive reception by the Cuban people," Shifter said.

"The surprise has been how little backlash there has been to the quick-moving opening in the US," he added

He said the Cuba opening has been "an undisputed political winner" for Obama and his left-leaning Democratic Party.

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