President Barack Obama told two of Cuba’s leading dissidents in South Florida Friday that he admires their sacrifices, a rare White House recognition of the peaceful opposition on the communist-ruled island.
“The most important thing here was the recognition by the president of the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world,” dissident Guillermo Farinas said minutes after the meeting.
Farinas, spokesman for the Cuban Patriotic Union of Cuba, and Ladies in White leader Berta Soler met with Obama during a fund-raiser at the Pinecrest home of Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).
Farinas said the two dissidents urged Obama during their private meeting to ensure that any negotiations on the future of Cuba include the opposition on the island as well as exiles.
They also counseled the president to listen to dissidents, because they are the ones who live on the island. Fariñas and Soler have both advocated tough U.S. sanctions on Havana until the government moves toward democracy.
Mas Santos told El Nuevo Herald that the president listened to the dissidents, “encouraged them and spoke of his admiration for their sacrifices.”
Obama’s visit “lasted an hour but seemed like 10 seconds,” said Mas Santos, who hosted one of three Obama fundraisers Friday and Saturday for the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Speaking by the pool of Mas Santos’ house, Obama said his policy of supporting civil society in Cuba is beginning to show results, but that Washington must continue to be “creative and thoughtful” in its policies.
Soler wore the traditional white clothes of her group, and Farinas wore a suit and tie with a Band-Aid over the spot on his scalp where he suffered a cut during a beating just last Sunday by a pro-government mob.
Meetings of U.S. presidents with dissidents from any country have been historically rare, although Vice President Joe Biden received Soler in the White House last month.
Both the Ladies in White and Fariñas have won the European Parliament’s top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of conscience. The women won it in 2005 and Fariñas, who has staged more than 20 hunger strikes to protest abuses, in 2010.
Mas Santos, son of CANF founder Jorge Mas Canosa, has been a strong Obama supporter since his 2008 campaign for the presidency. Conservatives in CANF broke off in 2001, four years after Mas Canosa’s death, and founded the Cuban Liberty Council.
The other Obama fundraisers were being hosted by Leslie Miller Saiontz, a businesswoman and philanthropist who contributed $57,300 in 2012 to various candidates and committees, and Ralph G. Patino, a Coral Gables personal-injury attorney who contributed $88,800 last year to various committees and candidates.
Many donors at the Mas Santos fundraiser moved on later to Tropical Nights, the separate annual fundraiser for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba.
“Unquestionably, this has been an incredible night,” Fariñas said. “This has been a triumph for the entire opposition, above all for democracy in Cuba, for those who are on the island and those outside, those who died trying to get out and those who live outside.”