U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson hosted a group of seven dissidents for breakfast Friday as part of an American commitment to keep human rights front and center in its evolving relationship with Cuba.
Later in the day, she met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega to discuss the shift in the United States’ Cuba policy and the role the Vatican and Pope Francis played in encouraging the two countries to put their differences aside and end 53 years of isolation.
The White House has said its new Cuba policy would help advance U.S. values and interests, such as democracy, civil society and protection of human rights as well as create more opportunities for Americans and Cubans.
But during a news conference at the sprawling estate of the head of the U.S. Interests Section, Jacobson told reporters: “It’s very hard to say how this will work. We think that we need to make decisions in our own interests and take decisions that are going to empower the Cuban people but the verdict on whether that succeeds is still to be made.”
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Among those on the guest list were; José Daniel Ferrer, a leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba; Elizardo Sánchez, a leading human rights activist; Héctor Maseda, a journalist; dissident Guillermo Fariñas; long-time dissident Marta Beatriz Roque; political activist Antonio González-Rodiles, and independent journalist Miriam Leiva, one of the founders of the Ladies in White group.
Berta Soler, who heads the Ladies in White and doesn’t support normalization of ties between Cuba and the United States, told El Nuevo Herald that she boycotted the breakfast because the invitees didn’t represent a diversity of opinion.
Soler said that any inflows of money that might result from the United States’ new, more liberal trade and travel policy for Cuba “should be used for the people and not to repress” and the United States needed to supervise the process.
Rodiles told El Nuevo Herald that he was concerned that the Cuban opposition wasn’t being taken into account in the process of rapprochement as well as about “the speed with which President Barack Obama has proposed lifting the embargo — without any response on the part of the regime.”
Asked about Jacobson’s meeting with the dissidents, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, head of the North American division at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell: “This small group of people don’t represent Cuban society, don’t represent the interest of the Cuban people. So that’s a big difference with the United States government.”
Over the course of two days, U.S. and Cuban delegations held three meetings on migration issues, steps to establish respective embassies and issues of mutual interest.
Human rights were very much part of the agenda during the final session on Thursday.
“We pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression and assembly,” said Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation and is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in more than three decades.
But at her news conference, Vidal, who headed the Cuban side, took issue with the term pressed. “The word press wasn’t used I have to tell you,” she said. “It isn’t the kind of word you use in this type of conversations.
“Cuba has demonstrated throughout its long history that it has never responded nor will it respond to pressure wherever it may come from,” added Vidal.
On human rights, she said, there were deep differences between the United States and Cuba.
Asked if there was distrust between the two countries given their history, Vidal responded: This is what I believe; we’re neighbor countries, we have profound differences but we can survive peacefully, in a civilized fashion, if we’re able to find solutions to common problems.”
Cuba also said it was concerned about the guarantee and protection of human rights — but in the United States.
In its final press note on the talks, the Ministry of Foreign Relations (Minrex) cited “the persistent and illegal character of detentions” at Guantanamo and “alarming cases of brutality and police abuse” in the United States.
Minrex said recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York “show the worsening of racism and racial discrimination.” In both cities, blacks were killed by white police officers.
It also mentioned the “differentiated racial pattern” when it comes to applying the death penalty to minorities.
The Cubans suggested a “respectful and reciprocal dialogue” on human rights in the future. They said such a dialogue would build upon the “positive experience achieved in Cuba with regard to the enjoyment of human rights and our contribution to the improvement of these rights in many countries of the world.”
Vidal explained the latter meant Cuba’s contribution to a better quality of life in other countries. It, for example, has been very active in the fight against Ebola and sends thousands of Cuban doctors around the world.
She also said the suggestion for a human rights dialogue was a repeat of a request to the United States that Cuba had made a year ago.
During Thursday’s final session, the two sides talked about a wide range of issues of mutual interest or that had potential for cooperation.
The Obama administration’s recently released guidelines on expanded travel and trade also were discussed, including the U.S. overture that would allow American companies to sell consumer telecommunications equipment and services in Cuba and to participate in projects to provide telecom infrastructure and Internet services.
“We believe these measures go in a positive direction since they modify certain aspects of the blockade [embargo],” said Vidal. “We’re studying the regulations. We need the help of lawyers to understand them.”
As far as telecom goes, Vidal said, “We confirmed we’re ready to receive U.S. telecom companies to explore business opportunities — business that could be of benefit to both sides.”
Also discussed were human trafficking, law enforcement, environmental protection and global health security. The Cuban delegation suggested a separate meeting on how the two countries might more efficiently cooperate on efforts to fight Ebola.
Coordinated responses to oil spills — an issue of concern to South Florida as Cuba explores for offshore oil — were part of the discussions, too.
The Cuban delegation also expressed its willingness to discuss the boundaries of the Eastern Gap in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Minrex.
The Eastern Gap, which lies far off the coast of Naples in international waters, is a potential source of deep-water oil and is claimed by Mexico, the United States and Cuba. But the boundaries for each country haven’t been delimited.
When the White House announced its new Cuba policy, it said it was “prepared to invite the governments of Cuba and Mexico to discuss shared maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico.”