RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Obama and his family are traveling to Cuba tonight. It's not far - just 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida. But Air Force One will be weighed down with a lot of symbolic baggage. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from Havana. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: This is going to be a crazy scene - right? - when the president lands in Havana.
HORSLEY: When that 747 with the United States of America painted on the side touches down at Jose Marti Airport, it is going to be a big deal. He's the first president to come here since Calvin Coolidge. And his national security adviser, Susan Rice, says this is the culmination of a diplomatic thaw that was first announced 15 months ago but that reverses half a century of official isolation.
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SUSAN RICE: Today, the American flag flies over our reopened embassy in Cuba. More Americans are visiting Cuba than at any time in the last 50 years. More American companies are looking to invest in Cuba.
HORSLEY: This opening to Cuba is certainly one of this president's major foreign-policy initiatives, along with the Iranian nuclear deal. And like that controversial agreement, this outreach to Cuba required setting aside decades of hostility and trying to find some common ground.
MARTIN: So polls show a majority of Americans support all this outreach to Cuba, but not everyone's celebrating. There's still some opposition in Congress, and the formal embargo is still in place, right?
HORSLEY: Absolutely, although the White House is lobbying lawmakers to lift the embargo. But Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan says Congress is not budging. Ryan said just a few days ago the embargo remains the law of the land.
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REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: The Castro regime has been guilty of countless human rights abuses. This is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and to fugitives. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the president will bring up the need for reform during his visit.
HORSLEY: Actually, the White House says that Obama will raise the issue of human rights abuses when he meets tomorrow with President Raul Castro. He's also holding a separate meeting on Tuesday with a group of Cuban dissidents. There have been some reports of dissidents being harassed and detained in the days leading up to the president's visit. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon here.
MARTIN: I understand, obviously, there's going to be a lot of business on this trip, but a little pleasure too. The president is going to meet with some Cuban entrepreneurs, and then he's going to go see a little baseball.
HORSLEY: Yeah, baseball diplomacy will be in full force during this visit. Obviously, it's a favorite pastime in both countries. It's a symbol of the long history the United States shares with Cuba. So the Tampa Bay Rays will be playing an exhibition game here in Havana against the Cuban national team. But even that is not all fun and games. Major League Baseball is in talks with the Cuban government on a deal that would allow Cuban ballplayers to play for major league teams without having to defect first. And the Treasury Department cleared the way for that last week. That is one of many steps the administration has taken to whittle away at the embargo and to promote travel and trade with Cuba.
MARTIN: All that has led to a spike in the number of Americans who are visiting Cuba. But I gather there haven't necessarily been a lot of similar changes made on the Cuban side?
HORSLEY: No, and there are some skeptics who say that the president really should have waited to do this trip until there had been more movement from the Cubans. The administration, though, says the time was ripe. And even if Cuba doesn't move, they argue, this diplomatic outreach was the right move for the administration to make. The decades-old policy of trying to isolate Cuba was very unpopular in the rest of Latin America and had the perverse effect of isolating the United States.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley in Havana. Scott, I think you should take some salsa lessons or something like that.
MARTIN: I'm just saying.
HORSLEY: I'll do my best.
MARTIN: Thanks so much.
HORSLEY: My pleasure.
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