Top US official meets dissidents in Cuba

THE highest-ranking US official to visit Cuba in 35 years met with leading dissidents on Friday, but one prominent opposition figure stayed out amid differences over Washington’s rapprochement with Havana.

The Cuban government criticized the meeting between Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s top official for Latin America, and regime critics but indicated that it would not derail negotiations to normalize ties.

Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White group of spouses of political prisoners, turned down the invitation to attend the breakfast meeting over eggs and bacon with Jacobson.

“My decision was due to there not being a balance in terms of the diversity of opinion of the participants,” Soler told AFP. “If a diversity of opinions is sought, if differences are respected, then it should be balanced.”

Some of the seven dissidents who attended the meeting under crystal chandeliers at the lavish mansion of the head of the US Interests Section in Havana played down the differences.

“This question of whether or not we welcome this dialogue between the US and Cuban government is secondary,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of a dissident group in western Cuba, told reporters.

“What’s important is that we remain united in that freedom, democracy and respect of human rights are the fundamental issues in this case,” he said.

He said they conveyed to Jacobson the “importance of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and people.”

Cuba’s dissident community has had mixed feelings about US President Barack Obama’s December agreement with Cuban leader Raul Castro to seek normal ties.

Some have praised the move while others worry too much was conceded to the communist regime without getting much in return.

Jacobson made a point of meeting with the dissidents the day after leading the landmark talks with Cuban officials to discuss reopening mutual embassies and normalizing ties that broke in 1961.

“I had the opportunity to discuss with some civil society activists their point of view, listen well to their discrepancies or support for the new policy,” Jacobson said.

“It was very important for me to listen to their perspectives and how we can support civil society in the future,” she told reporters, without addressing Soler’s absence.

Cuba’s chief negotiator, Josefina Vidal, said the diplomatic talks will continue despite Jacobson’s meeting with government critics.

“This small group of people don’t represent Cuban society, don’t represent the interests of the Cuban people. So that’s a big difference with the United States government,” Vidal told the US news network MSNBC.

Jacobson said Washington would continue to speak directly with the Cuban government about its concerns over human rights.

The aim of the rapprochement is to resume diplomatic relations “but also try to empower the Cuban people with the goal of having a free and democratic country so close to the United States,” she said.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the formally banned but tolerated Cuban National Human Rights Commission, said the talks with Jacobson were “a very human coming together.”

Besides Ferrer and Sanchez, participants included Martha Beatriz Roque, Miriam Leiva, Hector Maseda, Antonio Gonzalez-Rodiles and Guillermo Farinas.

Sanchez said he supports the US policy shift but said he was not expecting “any miracles in the short term.”

“Hopefully I am wrong but the situation will continue to be very unfavorable due to the drastically intransigent position of the totalitarian regime of the Castro brothers, which is what needs to change,” he said.

In the afternoon, Jacobson took a stroll along Old Havana’s streets, walking several blocks from the cathedral to the office of Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Jacobson “appreciated the opportunity to listen to the perspectives of Cardinal Ortega, as she appreciates the views of other religious groups, on the situation in Cuba,” a US State Department official sad.

The two discussed the “important role” the Vatican played in mediating the US-Cuba policy shift, the official said.

This week’s talks did not lead to any announcement of dates for the reopening of embassies but both sides pledged to meet again.

“(Thursday’s talks) marked an important step forward for the relationship between the United States and Cuba. But it was just a first step,” Jacobson said.

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