Obama tells Cuban dissidents he will discuss rights with Castro
By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama promised one of Cuba’s
most prominent dissident groups he would raise the issues of freedom of
speech and assembly with Cuban President Raul Castro during his March
20-22 visit to the Caribbean island.
In a letter dated March 10, Obama praised the work of the Ladies in
White, which marches weekly to protest Cuba’s Communist government, and
defended his policy of seeking to normalize relations with Cuba as good
for its people.
U.S. support for the dissidents is a source of tension ahead of Obama’s
visit, the first by a U.S. president since Fidel Castro’s rebels
overthrew a pro-American government in 1959.
After more than half a century of Cold War-inspired animosity, the two
sides promised 15 months ago to normalize relations.
The Ladies in White criticized Obama’s policy change, saying the Cuban
government continues to suppress dissent by breaking up anti-government
demonstrations while maintaining a monopoly on the media. They say Cuba
has cracked down more ferociously since rapprochement.
“We take seriously the concerns you have raised,” said Obama’s letter,
which group leader Berta Soler read to about two dozen Ladies in White
and other supporters gathered in a Havana park.
“I will raise these issues directly with President Castro,” said Obama,
who called the Ladies “an inspiration to human rights movements around
A senior U.S. official in Washington confirmed that an Obama aide
delivered the letter to the Ladies in White in Miami.
As in marches for the most of the last year, a demonstration on Sunday
ended with police detaining the protesters after they were met by a
larger group of pro-government counterdemonstrators.
Police detained about two dozen people, at which point the streets
filled with conga dancers and drummers who led hundreds of government
supporters in their own rally. The weekly demonstrations and detentions
are normal, but the conga line was an additional flourish a week before
Soler welcomed Obama’s letter but still disagreed with him for enacting
unilateral changes without any reciprocal moves by Cuba.
“The response of this letter is positive for us, and we greatly
appreciated it,” Soler said minutes before she was detained.
The Cuban government dismisses the dissidents as mercenaries seeking to
destabilize the country. Cuba also defends its universal healthcare and
education as human rights and criticizes the U.S. record on race
relations and the Guantanamo Bay military prison.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in
Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)
Source: Obama tells Cuban dissidents he will discuss rights with Castro
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