Secretary of State John F. Kerry has canceled a trip to Cuba two weeks before President Barack Obama visits the communist-ruled nation as diplomats haggle over which Cuban dissidents the president will be allowed to meet.
The back and forth over human rights is another sign of how prickly U.S.-Cuba relations remain despite the restoration of diplomatic ties, and the easing of many travel and trade restrictions, over the past year.
It also highlights a potential problem for Obama’s planned March visit, the first by a sitting president in nearly 90 years, to the former Cold War adversary.
There was not “common agreement” between the State Department and Cuban counterparts on aspects of Kerry’s trip, including his ability to meet with dissidents, said a U.S. official.
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Despite the U.S. push toward normalization of relations, the government in Havana has done little to ease its limits on free expression or to improve treatment of human rights activists and political dissidents.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro has supported opening the Cuban economy to incorporate free market elements, including private enterprise and private ownership of homes and cars, for the first time since the 1959 revolution that brought the communists to power.
But he has insisted that the political system and the “socialist nature of the revolution” will not change. His Foreign Ministry official for U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, has described the U.S. focus on human rights as hypocritical.
Despite that resistance, Obama, in his announcement last month of his trip, said he aims to engage with the Cuban people. Previously, he had said he would not go unless Cuba allowed significant progress on human rights.
“As I did when I met President Castro last year, I’ll speak candidly about our serious differences with the Cuban government, including on democracy and human rights. I’ll reaffirm that the United States will continue to stand up for universal values like freedom of speech and assembly and religion,” Obama said in his weekly address the day after his Cuba trip was announced.
He said he intended to speak directly with the Cuban people, including members of Cuba’s civil society and Cuban entrepreneurs.
Kerry, who flew to Havana in August to reopen the U.S. Embassy, had planned to return this week to lay the groundwork for Obama’s visit. But that trip was canceled, officials said Thursday, when arrangements could not be finalized.
The secretary of state “is still interested in visiting in the near future, and we are working with our Cuban counterparts and our embassy to determine the best time frame,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman.
Other officials said the new U.S. Embassy, which remains a bare-bones operation, was overwhelmed trying to arrange back-to-back visits by Kerry and Obama.
When U.S. diplomats began negotiations for Obama’s visit, they said any attempt to block him from meeting dissidents would be a deal breaker, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
Who Obama speaks to, the venue he chooses — private conversations, at a reception or during a speech — and certainly what he says will be closely watched in Cuba, South Florida and beyond.
Some Cuban exiles say the president should talk about democratic elections and voting, meet directly with dissidents and condemn the lack of basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. They wonder how the president will define his meetings with civil society and who will be included.
Conversing with Castro, they say, won’t help the Cuban people but will only legitimize the regime.
“I hope that President Obama sees the folly of his visit which legitimizes the oppressive Castro regime and cancels his visit, which only gives the oppressors the green light to continue repressing those who seek their fundamental human rights,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“He’s not doing this trip to be best buddies with Raúl Castro. He’s a realist and he wants to have outreach with the Cuban people,” said Jose W. Fernandez, a Cuban-born lawyer and former assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs.
“I think Cuba will allow the president to meet with second and third-tier dissidents who are no threat to the Cuban government,” Andy Gomez, a Cuba analyst who lives in Coral Gables, told the Miami Herald. “I hope the State Department realizes these aren’t the real dissidents.”
Political dissidents in Cuba are a varied bunch.
Some are so bitterly anti-Castro, they disapprove of Obama’s rapprochement, favor the embargo and might refuse an invitation. Others, known worldwide, are despised by the Cuban government.
Cuba now holds several dozen political prisoners in its jails, according to Cuban activists, down from several hundred a few years ago. But the government still harasses dissidents by detaining them for brief periods.
In January, 1,414 political dissidents were detained, the second-highest number in years, according to Elizardo Sanchez, head of the opposition Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. He said 56 of the detainees were beaten.
“Do the Cuban people deserve this visit? The answer is overwhelmingly yes,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, an umbrella organization of groups that seek the lifting of all trade and travel restrictions.
But Gomez fears the normalization process between the United States and Cuba hasn’t reached a point where a presidential visit might not generate embarrassing or unforeseen consequences.
“There are a lot of loose ends. Cuba hasn’t really come to the table with much that is concrete,” he said. “People at the State Department are telling me that the Cubans don’t even return their phone calls. So why send the president of the United States?”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.