President Barack Obama granted outspoken political dissidents of the Cuban government the highest level of recognition they’ve ever received in their own country, meeting privately with them Tuesday against the wishes of the Castro regime.
Obama sat down with 13 dissidents and political activists behind closed doors at the U.S. embassy for more than an hour and a half, several of the attendees said, even though the gathering had been scheduled to last only a half-hour. The president greeted each person around the conference table by name, taking notes as they aired grievances about Raúl Castro’s rule — and, in some cases, about Obama’s U.S.-Cuba policy.
“President Obama’s goal was achieved, in terms of relaying a very clear message of human recognition and moral support,” said Elizardo Sánchez, the head of a human-rights group who was detained for several hours Saturday when he returned home to Havana.
The White House insisted the meeting with the dissidents was never in question. But when Secretary of State John Kerry failed to travel to Cuba a couple of weeks ahead of the president, as had been expected, Castro opponents feared an attempt was under way by the Cuban government to dictate who could meet Obama.
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After the regime detained more than 50 activists Sunday — including two invited to Obama’s meeting — dissidents also worried government authorities might keep them from showing up Tuesday.
The U.S. embassy picked up each of the 13 invitees at home Tuesday, and later dropped them off one by one, to avoid any trouble.
The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald reached five dissidents by phone after the meeting. All characterized it as a positive one, but Obama didn’t change the minds of the most strident critics of reestablished U.S.-Cuba relations — the ones with perhaps the tightest ties to Cuban exiles in Miami.
“We were hoping for a clear condemnation of this situation we’re living in,” said Antonio Rodiles, the head of a dissident group and one of the people detained after protesting Sunday, the day Obama landed in Havana.
Instead, he and two other hard-liners — Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, and Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas — agreed to continue to disagree with Obama’s approach, though they said they were grateful for his support.
“In the end, we concluded that all of us want to empower Cuba, but some of us want to do it one way and others another way,” Fariñas said.
Soler said she asked Obama to call for an amnesty for political prisoners and to condition future negotiations with Castro on ending “police violence” against dissidents.
“We told him it wasn’t the right time for him to come to Cuba, since he said he’d come to Cuba if there had been advances in human rights” — and a few hours before his arrival Sunday, “the whole world” saw the Ladies in White detentions.
Still, for activists unaccustomed to civil dialogue with government officials, a presidential meeting with differing points of view felt like a sign of “maturity,” said Dagoberto Valdés, who runs the Catholic magazine Convivencia.
The gathering began shortly after Obama concluded a landmark speech in which he challenged the Cuban government to embrace democracy and open up to the world.
José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba and a backer of Obama’s reengagement with the island, said he was the first dissident to speak to the president, and he congratulated him on his remarks.
“The immense majority of Cubans are very grateful,” Ferrer said.
Also taking part in the meeting were rapper and ex-political prisoner Ángel Yunier Remón Arzuaga, known as El Crítico; lawyer Lartiza Diversent; Manuel Cuesta Morúa, leader of another dissident group; LGBT activists Juana Mora Cedeño and Nelson Álvarez Matute; and independent journalists Miriam Celaya and Miriam Leiva.
Not participating was blogger Yoani Sánchez, who met instead with Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and three other independent journalists Tuesday at the embassy.
A group of about 50 people huddled catty-corner from the embassy — in front of a plaza known as the “anti-imperialist grandstand” for Cubans to protest Americans — to try to catch a glimpse of Obama. Reporters hoped to see the dissidents. Neither the president nor his guests left through the front door.
Daniel Llorente Miranda, 52, had seen Obama’s speech, which he praised for being “very honest. And such great courage to speak the truth here, in front of everyone.”
He wore the Cuban flag on a T-shirt — and wrapped himself in a huge American one. None of the many police officers dared bother him.
The White House said these Cuban human-rights activists and dissidents met with President Obama at the U.S. embassy in Havana on Tuesday.
Nelson Alvarez Matute — President of Afro-ACLU
Miriam Celaya Gonzales — Activist and independent journalist
Manuel Cuesta Morua — Member of Progressive Arc
Laritza Diversent — Member of Cubalex, a legal information center on human-rights
Guillermo ‘Coco’ Fariñas — Former political prisoner, winner of Sakharov Human Rights Prize
Jose Daniel Ferrer — Member of the Christian Liberation Movement and Cuban Patriotic Union
Miriam Leiva Viamonte — Human-rights activist and independent journalist
Juana Mora Cedeño — Member of Alianza Mano, LGBT activist
Augel Yunier Remon — Dissident rapper known as ‘the Critic’
Antonio Rodiles — Coordinator of Estado de SATS
Elizardo Sanchez — Founder, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation
Berta Soler — Leader of the Ladies in White
Dagoberto Valdes Hernandez — Catholic intellectual, editor and founder of Vitral and Convivencia magazines.