Obama should use visit to step up pressure on Cuba

Tourists ride vintage American convertibles as they pass by the United States embassy in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. President Barack Obama said that he will visit Cuba on March 21-22, making him the first sitting president in more than half a century to visit the island nation. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

President Barack Obama declared an end to a roughly 50-year embargo and the restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba at the end of 2014, but progress in reforming the oppressive Castro government has so far been disappointing at best.

Soon the president will have a powerful opportunity to help change that. Mr. Obama announced on Thursday that he will visit Cuba in March, marking the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting U.S. president has traveled to the island nation.

There is much at stake in his trip.

Mr. Obama must use his presence to push for desperately needed transformations — particularly the release of thousands of political prisoners and greater guarantees for freedom of expression. Such reforms aren’t likely to happen immediately, but they should be non-negotiable if the United States is to continue thawing relations with Cuba.

Indeed, the lack of pressure on the Castro regime has been a prime criticism of the president’s efforts in Cuba, and rightly so.

But there is also much to be said for the transformative power of human interaction — the impact U.S. travelers can have on Cubans — as well as for the attraction of a freer economy. There are some signs of movement toward both of those goals.

On Monday, an Alabama tractor company said that it had received approval from the Obama administration to open a factory in Cuba. It’s the first time in five decades a U.S. company has been allowed to do so.

The next day, the U.S. State Department and Department of Transportation revealed that up to 110 daily flights will soon be allowed between the United States and Cuba.

Those small cracks in the walls the Castros have built to protect and maintain their socialist rule may well grow large enough to bring their tyrannical government crashing down. But it will take time — and the determined political will of the American government.

To that end, Mr. Obama will soon have a remarkable platform to push for change in a country that has remained tragically locked in the past for far too many years. And push he must.

It’s no longer acceptable to remain quiet about the continuing rights abuses occurring in Cuba or the unjust imprisonment of those who dare to speak out against its government.