Obama will push human rights agenda on Cuba trip
Obama will push human rights agenda on Cuba trip
Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez
spoke by telephone Friday
An advance trip to Cuba was canceled by Kerry this week
Spokesman: Both ministers expressed commitment to the president’s
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
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
“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
“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
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
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
Source: Obama will push human rights agenda on Cuba trip | Miami Herald