Obama will push human rights agenda on Cuba trip

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks during the flag-raising ceremony at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana on Aug. 14, 2015. A trip that Kerry was supposed to make to Cuba to smooth the way for an upcoming presidential visit was abruptly canceled.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks during the flag-raising ceremony at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana on Aug. 14, 2015. A trip that Kerry was supposed to make to Cuba to smooth the way for an upcoming presidential visit was abruptly canceled. AP

Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez committed Friday to making President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba a success, but the issue of human rights could still prove to be a minefield during the historic visit later this month.

This week Kerry abruptly canceled a trip to Cuba in advance of the president’s visit. A U.S. official said the State Department and Cuban counterparts couldn’t reach “common agreement” on aspects of Kerry’s trip, including his ability to speak with dissidents. The official also cited logistical challenges for the still fledgling U.S. Embassy in planning back-to-back trips.

John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, portrayed the president’s March 21-22 trip as being on track Friday and said Kerry would be accompanying Obama on the first presidential visit to Cuba in nearly 90 years.

“The secretary told the foreign minister (in their phone conversation) that the president is very much looking forward to the trip and meeting with a wide array of Cuban officials and citizens, to include members of civil society,” Kirby said.

Exactly who the president meets with and how he meets with them and addresses their concerns could create bruised feelings on both sides of the Florida Straits. Questions about whether Obama would meet with dissidents at a reception or a private setting or address human rights concerns in a public speech remained just that Friday — questions.

It had been hoped that during an advance trip, Kerry could get some kind of consensus on the human rights aspect of the president’s visit and also raise issues such as Cuba allowing a visit by the International Red Cross.

“Now with Kerry not going [in advance] and getting any agreement, there is a danger that the human rights component of the president’s trip will be half-baked,” said Christoper Sabatini, director of Global Americans, a New York think tank that looks at social inclusion and monitors human rights in Latin America.

Florida Republican Senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio said he was “heartened that the administration is even trying to raise issues related to human rights, but the president of the United States, as the leader of the free world, should never have to negotiate the right to meet freedom fighters or raise issues of concern when traveling abroad.”

In January, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights recorded 1,414 political arrests across the island. Most were short-term detentions.

Kirby said “the president has every expectation to meet with dissidents down there in Cuba. There’s no question we continue to have concerns on the human rights issue in Cuba, and we’ve been very candid and frank about that, publicly and privately.”

Rubio said the president should just cancel his trip. “The Castro regime is not worthy of the honor of a visit by an American president and the Cuban people deserve better than a continuation of a failed policy that only empowers their oppressors.”

Sabatini said even though the president’s visit may be more difficult in the current context, Obama needs to make the trip.

“It would be an admission of the failure of his Cuba policy if he doesn’t,” he said. And canceling the visit could start to unravel the efforts toward normalization that began on Dec. 17, 2014, Sabatini said.

But he said the trip could be fraught with potential pitfalls for the president if the Cuban government doesn’t give him the opportunity to speak with a broad range of Cubans or openly lectures the president on the two countries’ divergent concepts of human rights.

Cuba has faulted the United States on the recent spate of race-related violence and poor treatment of migrants and prisoners, for example, and says the continued imposition of the embargo is a massive violation of human rights.

While the United States points to the several dozen long-term political prisoners held in Cuba jails, and the continued harassment and high numbers of detentions of Cuban dissidents, Cuba highlights its healthcare and social initiatives as evidence of its concern for human rights.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, said on the blog Capitol Hill Cubans that he thinks the administration has “placed itself between a rock and a hard place.”

During a December interview, the president said he would visit Cuba “if, in fact, I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans.”

By going ahead with the trip while human rights abuses and detentions of dissidents continue, Claver-Carone said, the administration has emboldened Havana. A February editorial in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, for example, said that Obama’s upcoming trip was evidence there aren’t human rights violations in Cuba.

The White House said Friday that the president’s Cuba agenda is still a work in progress.

“The truth is, the president’s schedule for Cuba is just not set yet,” said Josh Earnest a White House spokesman. “But as we develop that schedule and it comes into clearer focus, we’ll be able to talk more clearly about where and when and how the president will interact with Cubans who are seeking to express their political views without being subject to intimidation, or in some cases, even incarceration.”

When Kerry went to Havana for the official flag-raising ceremony at the newly reopened U.S. embassy in August, there was a mini-controversy involving dissidents who thought they should have been invited to the high-profile event. But if dissidents were invited, it was unlikely that invited Cuban government officials would have taken part.

Kerry instead met with dissidents during a reception at the residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires. But not all the invitees chose to attend. Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White group, and dissident Antonio González-Rodiles both boycotted, saying that the Obama administration had given into pressures by the Cuban regime.

Dissidents in Cuba also run the gamut from those well-known and supported in the Cuban exile community to small, obscure groups with economic as well as political concerns. Some of them support Obama’s policies; others don’t like the changes and think the embargo should remain in place.

“Part of the problem is who we identify on this side as human rights leaders in Cuba. Many of these people aren’t very well known inside Cuba,” said Andy Gomez, a Coral Gables-based Cuba analyst. “It gets very complicated. So does Obama meet with those traditionally identified with the human rights movement in Cuba, or will the administration accept second or third-tier groups? Hard-line Cuban-Americans will criticize the president if he chooses to invite people they don’t recognize.”

Sabatini said the president needs to make his outreach to civil society “as broad as possible,” including meeting with dissidents who favor keeping the embargo in place.

He considers support for the embargo a definite minority position inside Cuba. But Sabatini said if Obama “wants to talk about democracy and inclusion on this trip,” he must meet with activists of all political stripes.

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