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Cuba Dissidents Win Award but Not Obama Audience

Cuba Dissidents Win Award but Not Obama Audience
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

Five Cuban dissidents who have collectively spent decades in jail for
their pro-democracy activities were given a top award by the National
Endowment for Democracy last night. But, unlike in past years, their
representative was not invited to the White House, organizers said.

Carl Gershman, of the endowment, said the organization asked
two weeks ago whether President Obama could meet with Bertha Antúnez,
the sister of one of the dissidents, who was picking up the award on
their behalf. Gershman said he never got a response. It was the first
time in five years that the president had not met with the winner of the
Democracy Award, according to the endowment, which is funded by Congress.

"I am disappointed, and also surprised since the President said in the
campaign that would be the touchstone on his Cuba policy,"
Gershman said in an e-mail, using the Spanish word for "liberty."

An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said
the fact that Antúnez had not been invited to the White House should not
be interpreted as a lack of interest from Obama, saying the president
receives many such requests.

Some activists have faulted Obama's team for not taking a stronger stand
on — while acknowledging the administration's decisions to
end the use of harsh interrogation techniques, close the U.S. military
at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and reverse other Bush-era policies.

The endowment had also asked Obama to issue a message to the Cubans to
accompany words of support from Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, dissidents
who went on to lead the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively. The
message from Obama arrived shortly before the ceremony began — after an
inquiry by The Washington Post — with an apologetic note from a
National Security Council staffer: "I had my dates confused."

The Obama administration has moved cautiously on Cuba, trying to improve
relations by lifting restrictions on there by Cuban Americans and
by offering to resume talks on immigration that broke off four years
ago. Officials have also taken more subtle steps, such as softening the
language on Cuba in the annual State Department terrorism report.

But Obama has also said the United States will not drop its trade
until Cuba's Communist government improves its record on
democracy and human rights.

In the message, Obama congratulated the Cubans for the award, saying
four of them had been "unjustly jailed for defending the basic freedoms
we all hold dear in the Americas." "It is my sincere hope that all
political prisoners who remain jailed, including three of today's award
recipients, will be unconditionally released and allowed to fully
participate in a democratic future in Cuba," the message said.

Former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), chairman of
the endowment, presented the award at a ceremony in the Cannon House
Office Building attended by lawmakers. In the past, the group has given
the prize to Chinese democracy activists, Afghan civic workers and such
luminaries as Havel.

The presentation included a video about the five Cubans, in which one of
them, labor activist Iván Hernández Carrillo, spoke in a phone call from
prison. "Congressmen, I thank you for this recognition because it
reminds us that we are not simply malcontents but fighters for
democracy," he said.

Gershman said Carillo lost his once-a-month phone privilege for six
months after the call.

Antúnez, who moved to Miami a year ago, said she was disappointed not to
meet Obama. "What I'd like is to have the opportunity to tell the
president about the situation of the country . . . and tell him of the
hope the Cubans have placed in him," she said in an interview. She added
that she hoped Obama would not alter the traditional U.S. hard line on
Cuba, because "any change could give strength to the government."

Her brother, Jorge Luis García Pérez, is an Afro-Cuban who was
released from jail in 2007 after 17 years. His wife, Iris Pérez
Aguilera, who is also black, leads a group called the Rosa Parks
Feminist Movement for Civil Rights.

The other two recipients were José Daniel Ferrer García, a youth
activist from the Christian Liberation Movement; and Librado Linares
García, founder of the Cuban Reflection Movement, a human rights
organization. Both are in jail.

Cuba Dissidents Win Award but Not Obama Audience –
(24 June 2009)

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