Fri Apr 16, 2010 1:17pm EDT
MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuban-American pop star Gloria Estefan asked President
Barack Obama to work for the freedom of jailed dissidents in Cuba during
a political fundraising event that seemed certain to anger the island's
Estefan and her musical entrepreneur husband Emilio Estefan hosted a
cocktail reception at their Miami home for Obama on Thursday evening,
the first of two Democratic Party fundraisers he attended during a visit
During the reception, Obama was given a letter from the mother of Cuban
dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died on February 23 after an 85-day
hunger strike to protest prison conditions in Cuba, participants in the
Local media reported Obama was also given a letter from another Cuban
dissident hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, who is seeking the release
of ailing political prisoners. The president also viewed photographs of
mothers and wives of jailed Cuban dissidents, known as the Ladies in
White, being harassed in Havana by Cuban security agents and
pro-government militants, local media said.
Zapata's death and the subsequent incidents involving Cuban dissidents
in recent weeks have triggered international criticism of Cuban
President Raul Castro's government, including a stern denunciation last
month from Obama.
But Castro, who took over the Cuban presidency from his ailing elder
brother Fidel in 2008, has rejected the pressure for political change
and for the release of dissidents, saying his government will not submit
Cuban authorities routinely portray internal opponents as "mercenaries"
and "traitors" in the pay of the United States and describe Miami as a
center of U.S.-backed "counter-revolution" and hostility against
HOPES FOR THAW HAVE FADED
In her words welcoming Obama and other guests at her home, Estefan
referred to an "oppressive government" in Cuba, which she called "the
country where I was born, a place where hope and freedom only live in
history, not in the present."
The reception was closed to media, but local TV networks showed
photographs of Obama viewing photographs of the Cuban dissident "Ladies
in White" at the Estefan home.
The speech by Estefan, whose father fought in the failed 1961
U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba by Cuban exiles, was
published on Friday by the Miami Herald.
At a second Democratic fundraising event in Miami later on Thursday,
Obama spoke publicly and reaffirmed U.S. support for earthquake-hit
Haiti, but did not refer to Cuba in the speech.
After taking office early last year, Obama said he wanted to attempt a
"new beginning" to improve U.S.-Cuban ties, and he eased restrictions on
Cuban-American family visits and money remittances to Cuba in a slight
relaxation of the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against the island.
But he also called on the Cuban leadership to reciprocate by improving
human rights and political freedom.
Hopes for a Havana-Washington thaw have faded however following the
arrest in Cuba in December of a U.S. contractor accused of illegally
distributing telecommunications equipment and jailed dissident Zapata's
death in February.
Some members of Miami's Cuban-American community, a traditional
Republican stronghold, had criticized the Democratic fundraiser hosted
by Estefan. But she parried this criticism by saying it was an
opportunity to "get the ear" of the president to talk to him about the
situation in Cuba.
(Editing by Eric Beech)