WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision to travel to Cuba next month and meet with President Raúl Castro reflects his determination to do as much as possible before he leaves office to pry open the historic and ideological barricades that have separated the United States from its neighbor since the Cold War.
It also represents something of a familiar gamble for Mr. Obama, who in becoming the first sitting American president to visit Cuba in 88 years will be testing his conviction that aggressive engagement, rather than harsh isolation, is the best way to prod an adversary to change.
In announcing the trip on Thursday, Mr. Obama was betting on the power of his office and the force of his personal diplomacy to persuade Mr. Castro to do more to open his mostly state-run economy and respect human rights. The Cuban leader has been unwilling to take those steps since the two presidents announced in December 2014 that they would move toward normalized relations after a half-century of hostility.
If Mr. Obama is wrong, the visit could instead highlight the deep differences that persist between the two nations.
While the administration has rushed over the past year to loosen restrictions on travel and commerce and remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, the White House conceded on Thursday that Cuba has done comparatively little to change its behavior despite the new spirit of openness.
“We believe the best way to try to push this forward is for the president to go,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and the White House’s point man on Cuba, arguing that Cuba had been in many ways unprepared to engage with the United States.
“The way to carry this policy forward is to keep leaning forward,” Mr. Rhodes said. “It’s not a quid pro quo, but we would like the trip to show concrete progress in normalization, so it’s an opportunity to demonstrate results.”
Mr. Obama, who will be accompanied by his wife, Michelle, plans to meet with political dissidents in addition to Mr. Castro. But he does not intend to see Fidel Castro, the architect of the 1959 revolution that led to the rupture with the United States.
The trip, planned for March 21-22, drew denunciations from critics in both parties of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy, many of them Cuban-Americans who have long opposed any engagement with the Castro government.
“To this day, we have not seen one substantial step toward transparent democratic elections, improved human rights, freedom of assembly, or the ability to form independent political parties and trade unions in Cuba,” said Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey. “Despite the lack of reciprocity from a despotic and reinvigorated Castro regime, our president is rewarding this oppressive regime with a visit.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican presidential candidate, released a letter to Mr. Obama urging him to reconsider the trip.
“Having an American president go to Cuba simply for the sake of going there, without the United States getting anything in return, is both counterproductive and damaging to our national security interests,” Mr. Rubio wrote. “You will send the message to the oppressed Cuban people that you stand with their oppressors.”
But the planned visit was met with jubilation from lawmakers who have begun pressing to repeal the embargo against Cuba.
“For Cubans accustomed to watching their government sputter down the last mile of socialism in a ’57 Chevy, imagine what they’ll think when they see Air Force One,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona.
Mr. Obama has used his executive power to forge closer ties with Cuba in the face of continued resistance in Congress to lifting the embargo. The two governments opened their long-shuttered embassies in Washington and Havana last summer, and the Commerce and Treasury Departments have issued several rounds of regulatory changes that essentially poke holes in what Cubans derisively refer to as the “blockade.”
American officials traveled to Havana on Tuesday to sign a pact that will for the first time in decades allow scheduled commercial flights between the United States and Cuba. And Cuban officials are in Washington this week for a round of talks aimed at expanding business ties.
The presidential trip had been under discussion for months, and Mr. Obama had made little secret of his eagerness to visit Cuba. But officials had said they wanted to see concrete progress toward normalization before promising that the president would make the journey.
On Thursday, Mr. Rhodes said Mr. Obama had ultimately concluded that it was better to make the trip early in the year, when he still had the time to make progress toward normalization before his term ends.
“Given the choice between going in December, when, frankly, it would just kind of be a vacation down to Cuba, or going now and trying to get some business done, we believe that the time is right to go and lean in and try to get as much done on this trip as we can,” Mr. Rhodes said.
The president, for one, is excited. “It will be fun,” he told reporters in a brief exchange at the White House on Thursday.
Mr. Obama will be the first president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge went in 1928. The president also plans to use the trip to highlight his efforts to foster closer ties with the rest of Latin America. After Cuba, he will travel to Argentina to visit Mauricio Macri, the new president, who has said he wants to improve relations with the United States after an era of strain.