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Kerry cancels trip to Cuba amid haggling on human rights

Kerry cancels trip to Cuba amid haggling on
Tracy Wilkinson and Christi Parsons

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has canceled a tentative trip to Cuba
two weeks before 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 and trade restrictions, over the last year.

It also highlights a potential problem for Obama’s planned overnight
visit on March 21, the first by a sitting president in nearly 90 years,
to the former Cold War adversary.

Despite the U.S. push toward normalization of relations, the government
in Havana has done little to ease its limits on free or to
improve treatment of human rights activists and political dissidents.

President has supported opening the Cuban 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
two-day 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.

“We determine who we meet with in different countries,” Ben Rhodes,
Obama’s deputy national security advisor, said Feb. 18. “And we’ve
certainly indicated to the Cubans that this is something the president
will be doing on this trip, as he does on other trips.”

Kerry, who flew to Havana in August to reopen the U.S. Embassy, had
hoped to return by week to lay the groundwork for Obama’s visit and to
“have a human rights dialogue, specfically,” he told the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee on Feb. 24.

But that trip was scrubbed, officials said Thursday, when arrangements
could not be finalized.

Kerry “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.

But political dissidents in Cuba are a varied bunch.

Some are so bitterly anti-Castro, they disapprove of Obama’s
rapprochement 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.

The cost of repression “is incalculable,” he said in a recent report,
noting the stigma and lost employment resulting from even brief arrests.

Perhaps of most concern to the Obama administration is the rearrest of
five people who were released as part of the surprise announcement Dec.
17, 2014, that Cuba and the U.S. were restoring diplomatic ties after
more than half a century.

“It is hard to speak of progress when they make these rearrests,” a
senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of
anonymity to provide details of private negotiations. “We have to keep
pushing them on this.”

Republican presidential candidates and other critics, including some
Democrats, have denounced the White House decision to visit Cuba, saying
it rewards a still-repressive, undeserving regime.

Obama’s supporters view his trip as a critical step toward normalization
and bringing Cuba’s economy into the 21st century after five decades of
enforced isolation.

“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

Christopher Sabatini, adjunct professor at Columbia ’s
of International and Public Affairs, suggested that Obama find ways to
make direct contact with ordinary Cubans, much as Pope Francis did with
unscheduled stops during his recent visit to the country.

“The mere fact of a president going to a country isn’t a Good
Housekeeping seal of approval of a government’s behavior,” Sabatini
wrote on the website he edits,

But if done right, he added, it can “send a strong signal of solidarity
with local citizens, rather than an endorsement” of the government.

Source: Kerry cancels trip to Cuba amid haggling on human rights – LA
Times –

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