President Raúl Castro of Cuba, left, with President Obama at the United Nations in New York in September.
By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS
February 18, 2016
WASHINGTON — President Obama will travel to Cuba in March, the White House announced on Thursday, making a historic visit as part of an effort to end more than a half-century of estrangement and forge normalized relations with a Cold War adversary.
The administration announced that Mr. Obama and the first lady will make the two-day trip on March 21 — the first by a sitting president in 88 years, when Calvin Coolidge visited — as top Commerce, Treasury and State Department officials were meeting privately with their Cuban counterparts in Washington for talks aimed at expanding business ties between the two nations.
Penny Pritzker, the commerce secretary, opened the discussions on Wednesday, calling on the government of Cuba to open its economy to American business and investment. She said the Cubans must do more to help facilitate commerce after the thaw between the two nations.
Ms. Pritzker said her department had acted aggressively since Mr. Obama’s December 2014 announcement to pave the way for American companies to do business in Cuba, granting 490 authorizations amounting to $4.3 billion last year alone — a roughly 30 percent increase over the previous year.
“But we need help from the Cuban side,” Ms. Pritzker said. “The U.S. companies that are attempting to do business in your country continue to face challenges.”
She added: “Without specific changes on your side that allow the private sector to engage, our changes will not unlock the opportunities for the Cuban people that both of us want to see.”
Tha talks, which began in a wood-paneled library at the Commerce Department within view of the White House, represent the latest effort by the Obama administration to push forward with the policy shift the president set in motion just over a year ago. But the process is vastly complicated by the American statutory trade and commercial embargo that has been in place for decades and that only Congress can lift.
The president plans to visit Argentina after he leaves Cuba.