WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama is open to visiting to Cuba in 2016 but first wants to see ordinary citizens there enjoy more personal freedoms, he said in an interview released on Monday.
In an interview with Yahoo! News, Obama said he has told Havana that without such progress, he is unlikely to visit the Communist island nation before he leaves office, despite the historic re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries earlier this year.
“I am very much interested in going to Cuba, but I think the conditions have to be right,” Obama said. “And what I’ve said to the Cuban government is ‘If, in fact I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans, I’d love to use a visit as a way of highlighting that progress.’”
“If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” Obama said. “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President [Raul] Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”
In the interview, which coincided with the anniversary of the announcement that Havana and Washington would restore relations, Obama also defended his aim to close the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but acknowledged that it was unlikely to be handed back to Havana any time soon.
Asked if he would return the facility to Cuba if it does close, Obama said that decision would likely be made by a future president.
Despite a campaign pledge to close the prison established to hold terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Obama has faced resistance in Congress to transferring the inmates, especially to U.S. prisons. There are 107 inmates left at Guantanamo, which once held more than 600.
Obama has said he can still close Guantanamo before he leaves office in January 2017, but he has not sent Congress a promised plan on how the facility would be closed.
Some 2016 Republican presidential candidates have said they would keep the prison open.
In the interview, Obama defended his administration’s vetting and release of prisoners held there and said there would be strategic gains in closing Guantanamo.
Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bernadette Baum