On historic Cuba trip, Obama to meet with Raul Castro

President comes under GOP criticism, but Iowa interests reach out, too

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and the first lady will make a historic trip to Cuba next month, the White House said Thursday, sparking criticism from leading Republicans over his decision to travel to a country still controlled by an authoritarian regime.

The president and Michelle Obama will go to the island nation March 21 and 22, according to a statement from White House press secretary Josh Earnest. It will mark the first visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president in the 88 years since a trip by President Calvin Coolidge.

News of the trip rekindles the push-me, pull-you relationship the United States has had with Cuba since Fidel Castro overthrew its government in 1959 and started the first communist nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Obama 14 months ago announced a normalization process between the nations, although a trade embargo passed by Congress in the early 1960s remains.

“I do think the visit gives too much prestige to communist leaders that have deprived their people of basic civil liberties,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley told The Gazette during a stop Thursday in North Liberty. “I don’t think we should have done anything until (the Cuban government) gives political liberties and basic rights to assemble, freedom of religion, all those sort of freedoms we take for granted.”

As he has done before, Grassley criticized the groundwork Obama laid to reconcile the nations.

“He’s gone ahead with diplomatic relations being established, and we have gotten very little for it and he just ended up being a bad negotiator,” the Republican U.S. senator said. “The visit is one thing, but what started it all off is worse.”

Nonetheless, the visit — which includes a meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro — comes as Iowa interests reach out to establish relationships with Cuba.

State Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, has introduced a resolution to develop support for an enhanced trade relationship between Iowa and Cuba.

University of Iowa officials are in the process of creating a business-specific Cuban study abroad program that would focus on forging Cuban partnerships with Iowa businesses and allow students to research possible initiatives and strategies, according to UI Study Abroad Director Autumn Tallman.

She and a UI colleague visited Cuba in October to make connections and map out logistics for the program, which could send it first students in December.

“There is a good deal of interest in wind energy,” Tallman said. “The energy sector has opportunities for collaboration, and the agricultural sector, and there may be opportunities beyond those.”

And when Obama makes his trip, Iowa State University’s Rose Caraway will happen to be there, too.

Caraway, an assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies who specializes in agro-ecology and environmental ethics, has been traveling to Cuba for years for her research into Latin America and the Caribbean and sustainable agriculture.

But, she said, those trips have been expanding in recent years as new opportunities came about.

They could include an ISU study abroad program to Cuba, Caraway said. She would create it, ideally, as a short-term experience.

“It’s very doable,” she said. “It’s on my radar as something I’d like to pursue.”

At the White House, Earnest sketched out similar goals. “In Cuba, the president will work to build on the progress we have made toward 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,” Earnest said.

But on the Republican presidential campaign trail, Obama was rebuked by several candidates including two — Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — whose parents emigrated from Cuba.

“It’s not just a communist dictatorship, it’s an anti-American communist dictatorship,” Rubio said on CNN. “I want the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba to change, but it has to be reciprocal.”

the Washington Post and Jessie Hellmann and Vanessa Miller of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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