The White House said Wednesday that a decision by President Obama to visit Cuba would not necessarily depend on the Castro regime providing more human rights protections and basic freedoms, but did say progress on those fronts would factor into his plans.
"I wouldn't necessarily suggest that the successful protection of those rights are required before any presidential visit is discussed," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Monday.
"I'm not laying down any markers in terms of what would be necessary definitively before a presidential visit," he said.
Earnest quickly added, however, that the amount of progress that the Cuban government makes as it relates to human rights "will factor into the decision by the president to travel to Cuba if he makes a decision" to do so.
The State Department announced Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to Cuba Aug. 14 to hoist the American flag over the embassy for the first time in nearly 55 years.
U.S. officials played down talk of human rights before the Cuban diplomatic delegation's trip to Washington Monday to hail the opening of embassies in both countries. A senior administration official told reporters Friday she didn't want to discuss specific human rights requests the administration would make during the visit.
But Earnest on Monday called the Castro regime's human rights record "sordid" and said he hopes the opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana would provide an opportunity for diplomats to travel more freely throughout the island and "engage the Cuban people."
Critics of the administration's rapprochement with Cuba argue that the Castro regime has showed no signs of slowing down arrests and abuse of dissidents leading up to the embassy openings. Some argue that the detentions have increased.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the Obama administration's decision to host the Cuban delegation in Washington for the embassy opening is "appalling" amid reports that the Castro regime is continuing to beat and imprison pro-democracy activists.
"As the Cuban flag rises just up the street from the White House, the Cuban dictatorship continues to arrest and oppress pro-democracy activists," Boehner said in a statement. "It is appalling to see America's president welcoming — and rewarding — a regime that shows no regard for our most fundamental values."
"Instead of mingling with the Castros' representatives today, our government should be standing with Cuba's freedom fighters," he argued.
Boehner brought noted Cuban dissident Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as "Antunez," to Obama's State of the Union speech earlier this year. Cuban authorities arrested Antunez, who previously served 11 years in prison for advocating democratic reforms in Cuba, Sunday July 12 and later released him, but some in Washington's Cuban-American community fear he was detained again over the weekend, knowledgeable sources tell the Washington Examiner.
Earnest acknowledged that since Obama announced plans to renew ties with Cuba in December, the White House has not seen "nearly as much progress as we'd like to have seen."
But, he said, "Considering the previous policy was in place for 55 years, I think some additional time is warranted before rendering judgment about the success of this approach."
"There's no doubt that more progress is needed in Cuba, and more that we're going to continue to press them to carry out," he said.