White House: Cuba has no say on Obama-dissidents meeting

US President Barack Obama speaks following a meeting with his economic team in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 4, 2016 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan) (AFP)

Washington (AFP) - The White House on Friday said Cuba's communist government will have no say in which dissidents President Barack Obama meets during his visit to the island later this month.

"The president does intend to meet with some political dissidents inside of Cuba," said spokesman Josh Earnest, "the guest list for that meeting will be determined solely by the White House."

"The president will meet with whomever he chooses to meet with."

The meeting is a difficult subject for Obama. Republicans accuse him of betraying human rights in Cuba by engaging the regime.

"Despite concession upon concession by the United States, detentions of activists have increased," said Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

The White House argues that a half century of isolation has failed to make Cuba democratic, and that improving economic ties will force the regime into political reforms.

On March 21, Obama will become the first US president to visit Cuba in almost a century.

The White House hopes the trip will be a "Berlin Wall" moment, crowning a policy they see as being among Obama's greatest foreign policy achievements.

Last April, on the eve of a historic first meeting with Raul Castro, Obama held a closed-door discussion with dissident Cuban lawyer Laritza Diversent and political activist Manuel Cuesta Moura, along with a dozen other activists from the Americas.

Castro's government has shown a willingness to slowly open the economy, but Cuba's political system is still utterly dominated by the regime.

Human rights groups say that detentions have actually increased of late, reaching around 8,000 last year, even as longer-term prisoners have been released.

"What worries us is that Obama had said in December that he would only come to Cuba if there was progress on human rights," Berta Soler of the Damas de Blanco told AFP.

"The repression continues," she added.