WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that he could travel to Cuba in the coming weeks to discuss human rights ahead of next month’s scheduled visit to the island by President Barack Obama.
“I may be down there in the next week or two to have a human rights dialogue, specifically,” Kerry said during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry traveled to Havana last August to formally inaugurate the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, the first visit in 70 years by a top U.S. diplomat to the communist island.
Specifically, Kerry’s visit would occur shortly before Obama’s March 21-22 trip, the first time a sitting U.S. president will set foot on the island in 88 years.
A stop in Cuba could be used to prepare for Obama’s visit and give a push to an area – human rights – that will be a priority for the U.S. president.
Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez, one of the biggest critics of the new U.S. policy toward Cuba, said that in the first two months of this year there have been 1,400 arrests on the island, adding that the human rights situation there is moving backwards.
Kerry acknowledged that the situation “isn’t perfect,” but he said that there have been certain advances in empowering the Cuban people in the private sector.
“The president hopes to press forward on the agenda of speaking to the people of Cuba about the future and obviously he is anxious to press on the rights of people to be able to demonstrate, to have democracy, to be free, to be able to speak and hang a sign in their window without being put in jail for several years,” Kerry said.
The secretary of state also defended the request, included in Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal 2017, for Congress to allocate $3.8 million to upgrade the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and hire another nine officials.
He said the embassy needs a bigger staff to support Washington’s objectives in Cuba.