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Obama will push human rights agenda on Cuba trip

By MIMI WHITEFIELD | Miami Herald | Published: March 5, 2016

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez by phone Friday morning and both expressed commitment to making President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba later this month a success but the issue of human rights could still prove to be a minefield during the historic visit.

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.

But John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, portrayed the president’s March 21-22 trip as being on track and said Kerry would be accompanying Obama on the first presidential visit to Cuba in nearly 90 years.

“Both ministers reiterated their commitment to making the visit a success and to insuring that the path to normalization continues in the positive direction it has already taken,” said Kirby. “The secretary told the foreign minister 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.”

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 Cross.

“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 Christopher Sabatini, director of Global Americans, a New York think tank that looks at social inclusion and monitors human rights in Latin America.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a presidential hopeful, 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.”

But Kirby said that “the president has every expectation to meet with dissidents. There’s no question we continue to have concerns on the human rights issue in Cuba.”

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 conception 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 violent of human rights.

While the United States points to the several dozen political prisoners held in Cuba jails, and the continued harassment and high numbers of detentions of Cuban dissidents, Cuba highlights its health care and social initiatives as evidence of its concern for human rights.

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 unabated, 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.

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 the president 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.

“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.”

Earnest also downplayed the idea that Kerry’s trip was canceled: “The trip was not planned. It was something that was considered, but ultimately, once it became clear that Secretary Kerry would travel with the president to Cuba, a secretary-level trip prior to the president’s one was not viewed as necessary.”

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 higher-profile event. If dissidents were invited, it was unlikely that invited Cuban government officials would have taken part.

Kerry instead met with some 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, and dissident Antonio Gonzalez-Rodiles both boycotted, saying that the Obama administration had given into pressures by the Cuban regime.

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©2016 Miami Herald
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