WASHINGTON — Cuba's government offered a rebuke Thursday of President Barack Obama's plans to use his upcoming visit to promote change on the island, even as it took a long-sought step to lift a penalty on converting U.S. dollars. The White House stood firmly behind Obama's plans to deliver a pro-democracy message directly to Cubans.
Three days before Obama's history-making trip begins, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Cuba would remove the 10 percent penalty if the U.S. follows through on letting Cuba access the global banking system. Aside from that single step, he offered no indication that Cuba would make further economic changes sought by the U.S., and he dismissed Obama's sweeping steps to ease the U.S. embargo on Cuba as essentially meaningless.
"Various U.S. officials have declared in recent hours that the objective of Obama's measures is empowering the Cuban people. The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago," Rodriguez said, referring to the 1959 revolution that put the current Cuban government in power.
He added that "something must be going wrong in U.S. democracy" and urged Obama to focus instead on empowering his own people.
But Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, made clear that Obama had no plans to curtail his call for more freedoms for Cubans during his three-day trip to Havana starting Sunday, the first by a sitting president in nearly 90 years. Hours after Rodriguez addressed reporters in Havana, Rice said Obama would meet with dissidents in Cuba and "speak candidly" with President Raul Castro about areas of disagreement — "particularly human rights."
"We believe the Cuban people, like people everywhere, are best served by genuine democracy," Rice said.
The tough talk from the Cuban government reflected the dual pressures on Castro's government as he hosts the leader of the country's longtime Cold War foe. Though Cuba's government is hungry for more U.S. investment, it is also wary of increased U.S. influence and frustrated that Obama has been unable to get Congress to lift longstanding U.S. sanctions.
Nationalist, anti-embargo rhetoric is a feature of Cuban government statements. Yet Rodriguez's speech — just three days before Obama's visit — was striking for its strong language and acid tone.
White House officials have downplayed concerns that such antagonistic comments poison the climate for Obama's visit or indicate Cuba is unready to truly normalize relations. Anti-American quips aside, greater U.S. engagement with Cuba is already helping Cuban citizens pursue more opportunity and better lives, Obama has said.
Unable to get Congress to lift the embargo, Obama has been systematically rolling back U.S. restrictions on Americans traveling and doing business in Cuba using his regulatory powers. Still, Cuba's government insists it is waiting for the embargo to be repealed before significantly opening up its economy. Rodriguez gave a lengthy list of complaints including the ban on Cuban government accounts in U.S. banks and a prohibition on direct U.S. investment in Cuba.
Still, Rodriguez laid out a scenario under which the 10 percent penalty on dollars exchanged at banks and money-changers in Cuba would soon be lifted, making it easier and cheaper for Americans to spend time in Cuba.
Earlier this week the U.S. lifted a ban on Cuban access to the global banking system, a longstanding Cuban demand. Rodriguez told reporters that Cuba will attempt a series of international transactions in coming days. If they work, Cuba will eliminate the 10 percent penalty.
The Obama administration's latest attempt to ease restrictions on Cuba despite the embargo came earlier Thursday when the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient security in their ports, eliminating a major impediment to the free flow of ships in the Florida Straits.
The shift clears the way for U.S. cruise ships, cargo vessels and even ferries to travel back and forth with much less hassle. No longer will all ships have to wait to be boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard for inspections, though the Coast Guard still can conduct random inspections.
Removing Cuba's designation under rules designed to fight terrorism also addresses a sore spot in the painful history between Cuba and the U.S., which dominated the island before relations were cut off amid the Cold War. After all, it was only last year that the U.S. removed Cuba from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
While in Havana, Obama plans to give a major speech that the White House has said will focus on the future of U.S.-Cuba ties and how Cubans can pursue a better life. Announcing that Obama's speech would be carried live on Cuban television, Rodriguez said Cubans would be able to draw their own conclusions from the president.
Weissenstein reported from Havana. Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.