Top US official to meet dissidents in Cuba

Francisco Jara and Laurent Thomet
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US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson (R) -- the most senior American official in Havana since 1980 -- participates in the second day of talks at the Convention Palace in Havana, on January 22, 2015

US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson (R) -- the most senior American official in Havana since 1980 -- participates in the second day of talks at the Convention Palace in Havana, on January 22, 2015 (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)

Havana (AFP) - The highest-ranking US official to visit Cuba in 35 years met with leading dissidents on Friday, but one prominent opposition figure declined to attend amid differences over Washington's rapprochement with Havana.

Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White group of spouses of political prisoners, had been expected to attend the meeting with Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's top official for Latin America, but turned down the invitation.

"I did not participate," Soler said. "My decision was due to there not being a balance in terms of the diversity of opinion of the participants."

"If a diversity of opinions is sought, if differences are respected, then it should be balanced," she said.

Dissidents who did attend the breakfast 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 because what's important is that we remain united in that freedom, democracy and respect of human rights are the fundamental issues in this case," Daniel Ferrer, the leader of a dissident group in western Cuba.

He said they told Jacobson "what we told every foreign government official with whom we speak, which is the importance of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and people."

Jacobson made a point of meeting with the dissidents the day after leading the highest-level US talks in 35 years with Cuban officials to discuss reopening US embassies in their respective capitals, a key step in normalizing ties after more than 50 years of hostile relations.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro surprised the world December 17 when they simultaneously announced plans to mend ties severed since 1961.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the banned but tolerated Cuban National Human Rights Commission, said about seven dissidents were at the talks with Jacobson.

"It was very cordial, a very human coming together. We are pleased with this meeting," he said.

"I cannot speak for all of civil society but the Cuban National Human Rights Commission is satisfied with the diplomatic position of the United States. We have to look ahead and prepare for what could be a new scenario and not look so much at the past."

Sanchez said he was not expecting "any miracles in the short term" and worried that repression of dissent will intensify.

"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.

US officials have not made the guest list public.

The dissident community voiced unease after last month's groundbreaking announcement, which has been criticized by some US lawmaker as getting too little in terms of changes to Cuba's one-party system.

- A first step -

"We have ... to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust," Jacobson said Thursday after her talks with Cuban foreign ministry officials.

The two sides fell short of announcing dates for the reopening of embassies, but they pledged to meet again to work toward that goal.

Both nations are currently represented by "interests sections" that restrict the work of diplomats in each capital.

At the end of the talks, Jacobson issued a statement saying she had "pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression and assembly."

While the two delegations praised the tone of the meeting, Cuba hit back with its own statement accusing Washington of a host of human rights abuses.

Cuban delegation chief Josefina Vidal said her government "has never responded to pressures."

But she invited the United States to hold a new meeting about human rights because countries with deep differences "can live together."

Jacobson is the most senior US official to visit Cuba since an envoy of then president Jimmy Carter met with Fidel Castro in 1980.

The leader of Cuba's 1959 revolution has yet to publicly comment about the detente that his brother Raul has engaged with his old enemy.

Pope Francis played a central role in mediating the secret negotiations that led the December announcement.

After meeting with dissidents and holding a press conference, Jacobson will visit Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Havana archdiocese, said in an article in the Catholic magazine Palabra Nueva (New Word) said the normalization process would be tortuous.

"But the first step has been taken and that is what's most important because the stalemate has been broken," he said.