President Barack Obama on Saturday defended his visit to Cuba next month amid rebuke from conservative circles, saying that it would further advance his efforts to restore diplomatic relations after more than a half-century of Cold War-era conflict between the countries.
“I’m focused on the future, and I’m confident that my visit will advance the goals that guide us —promoting American interests and values and a better future for the Cuban people, a future of more freedom and more opportunity,” the president said in his weekly address.
“My visit will be an opportunity to keep moving forward," he added. "I’ll meet with President Castro to discuss how we can continue normalizing relations, including making it easier to trade and easier for Cubans to access the Internet and start their own businesses."
The White House announced Obama’s visit on Thursday, a move that would make him the first sitting American president to travel to Cuba in nearly 90 years. His plan to visit March 21-22 comes more than a year after the Obama administration and Cuba made an agreement to restore diplomatic ties.
The president vowed to “speak candidly about our serious differences with the Cuban government, including on democracy and human rights.”
Obama’s efforts, which have moved toward normalizing relations with the communist country and loosened the U.S. trade embargo, have been rebuked throughout conservative circles, including presidential hopefuls Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz, sons of Cuban immigrants.
The U.S. embargo on Cuba cannot be lifted without congressional approval, unlikely to happen before the president completes his final year in the White House. The current Congress is controlled by Republicans.
The president also used his weekly address to emphasize that American businesses and visitors are helping to build private enterprises in the island nation, and Cubans are getting more access to Wi-Fi hot spots and information from outside the country online.
“I’ve always said that change won’t come to Cuba overnight. But as Cuba opens up, it will mean more opportunity and resources for ordinary Cubans. And we’re starting to see some progress,” Obama said.
This story originally appeared on MSNBC.com.