Cuban dissidents tell US visitors that human rights must be respected
Seven government critics tell US visitors that Cuba's main problem is
By Juan O. Tamayo
Critics of the Cuban government told a U.S. congressional delegation in
Havana on Friday that the island's main problem is its own government,
and that respect for human rights must be the first item on the table
for any Cuba-U.S. negotiations.
Led by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Richard Shelby, R-Al., the
delegation also met with Cuban ruler Raúl Castro and Alan Gross, a U.S.
government subcontractor whose 15-year prison sentence in Havana has
stymied efforts to improve bilateral relations.
It was the first time that senior U.S. visitors had met with Cuban
dissidents since former President Jimmy Carter was in Havana in March of
2011. Cuban authorities in the past have rejected visits by U.S.
delegations that insisted on meeting with activists.
Attending the meeting were Ladies in White leader Bertha Soler and
husband Angel Moya; Catholic activists Oswaldo Payá and Dagoberto
Valdés; activist Antonio Rodiles; and dissident Oscar Elias Biscet and
wife Elsa Morejón. Moya and Biscet were freed last year after spending
nearly eight years in prison.
Moya said the visitors made no declarations, asked several questions and
listened attentively as the seven government critics laid out their own
"We brought them up to date on the real situation in Cuba, and I said
that they must be careful, because if 40 years ago (Cuban authorities)
were not interested in commercial relations with the United States,
today they are," Moya said.
"This is a government that uses the resources of the people to
strengthen and equip its repressive forces," he added. "So it is very
important for us that respect for human rights would be the first
framework for any negotiations."
The Obama administration has allowed vastly increased travel to Cuba,
sparking complaints from some Castro critics that the travelers' money
is winding up in the pockets of the communist-ruled government.
Payá, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, said the dissidents
did not ask for U.S. sanctions on Cuba, but did urge "solidarity,
recognition for the rights of the people of Cuba."
"We explained," he added, "that while there are problems between the
U.S. and Cuban governments to discuss, the Cuban government's principal
problem is with the people of Cuba, with a people that wants change and
which the government shuts their doors to the future."
Leahy chairs the judiciary committee and Shelby is the ranking
Republican on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee. Also at
the 40-minute meeting were Sens Christopher Coons, D-Md., and Kent
Conrad, D-ND., and Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Ca., and Peter Welch, D-Vt.
Leahy told The Associated Press in Havana that he met with Gross on
Thursday at his prison in Havana, and that he and Shelby met with Castro
for 2 ½ hours later in the day and offered to take Gross home to
Maryland when they left Cuba.
"You can imagine how far that went," Leahy was quoted as saying. He
added that "we have a long way to go" to win Gross's release.
Coons said that the delegation had "vigorous discussions" on Gross, and
that during their meeting the Maryland man gave him a little blue
bracelet woven from bottle caps.
"He smiled and said, 'I have a lot of time on my hands. Hope it keeps me
in your mind," he told The Miami Herald after the delegation arrived in
Haiti. "It's clear (that) were he to serve a long sentence, it would be
very hard on him."
Gross, 62, was arrested in Havana in late 2009 and sentenced to 15
years. He was providing Jewish groups with communications equipment paid
for by a U.S. government pro-democracy program that Cuba says is aimed
at toppling the Castro government.
Leahy told the AP that Castro had said Gross "was no spy" but did bring
up the subject of the five Cuban intelligence officers arrested in Miami
in 1998 and sentenced to long prison terms.
Cuba says the five were in South Florida only to spy on violent exiles
and avert their attacks on Cuba, and has often hinted that Gross and the
Cubans could go home in simultaneous "humanitarian gestures."
The Obama administration has repeatedly rejected any talk of a swap.
Gross is an international development expert, it agues, while the five
spied on U.S. military bases as well as the exiles. One of the five also
was convicted for his role in Cuba's Feb. 24, 1996 shootdown of two
civilian planes that killed four Brothers to the Rescue members.
Leahy told the AP that Gross appeared in reasonably good spirits but
added that the Potomac, Md. man "obviously wants to leave. He feels that
his health has been endangered" by his incarceration.
It was Castro's first meeting with a ranking U.S. visitor since he had
dinner with Carter.
Dissident Martha Beatriz Roque, meanwhile, issued a statement saying it
was "a shame" that the Congress members had met with Castro on the
anniversary of the Brother to the Rescue killings.
"This is an offense to the opposition, an offense to the Cuban people
and also an offense to the people of the United States, which lost its
sons," she declared.