Cuba Dissidents Win Award but Not Obama Audience

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

Five Cuban dissidents who have collectively spent decades in jail for their pro-democracy activities were given a top award by the National Endowment for Democracy last night. But, unlike in past years, their representative was not invited to the White House, organizers said.

Carl Gershman, president of the endowment, said the organization asked two weeks ago whether President Obama could meet with Bertha Antúnez, the sister of one of the dissidents, who was picking up the award on their behalf. Gershman said he never got a response. It was the first time in five years that the president had not met with the winner of the Democracy Award, according to the endowment, which is funded by Congress.

"I am disappointed, and also surprised since the President said in the campaign that Libertad would be the touchstone on his Cuba policy," Gershman said in an e-mail, using the Spanish word for "liberty."

An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the fact that Antúnez had not been invited to the White House should not be interpreted as a lack of interest from Obama, saying the president receives many such requests.

Some activists have faulted Obama's team for not taking a stronger stand on human rights -- while acknowledging the administration's decisions to end the use of harsh interrogation techniques, close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and reverse other Bush-era policies.

The endowment had also asked Obama to issue a message to the Cubans to accompany words of support from Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, dissidents who went on to lead the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively. The message from Obama arrived shortly before the ceremony began -- after an inquiry by The Washington Post -- with an apologetic note from a National Security Council staffer: "I had my dates confused."

The Obama administration has moved cautiously on Cuba, trying to improve relations by lifting restrictions on travel there by Cuban Americans and by offering to resume talks on immigration that broke off four years ago. Officials have also taken more subtle steps, such as softening the language on Cuba in the annual State Department terrorism report.

But Obama has also said the United States will not drop its trade embargo until Cuba's Communist government improves its record on democracy and human rights.

In the message, Obama congratulated the Cubans for the award, saying four of them had been "unjustly jailed for defending the basic freedoms we all hold dear in the Americas." "It is my sincere hope that all political prisoners who remain jailed, including three of today's award recipients, will be unconditionally released and allowed to fully participate in a democratic future in Cuba," the message said.

Former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), chairman of the endowment, presented the award at a ceremony in the Cannon House Office Building attended by lawmakers. In the past, the group has given the prize to Chinese democracy activists, Afghan civic workers and such luminaries as Havel.

The presentation included a video about the five Cubans, in which one of them, labor activist Iván Hernández Carrillo, spoke in a phone call from prison. "Congressmen, I thank you for this recognition because it reminds us that we are not simply malcontents but fighters for democracy," he said.

Gershman said Carillo lost his once-a-month phone privilege for six months after the call.

Antúnez, who moved to Miami a year ago, said she was disappointed not to meet Obama. "What I'd like is to have the opportunity to tell the president about the situation of the country . . . and tell him of the hope the Cubans have placed in him," she said in an interview. She added that she hoped Obama would not alter the traditional U.S. hard line on Cuba, because "any change could give strength to the government."

Her brother, Jorge Luis García Pérez, is an Afro-Cuban dissident who was released from jail in 2007 after 17 years. His wife, Iris Pérez Aguilera, who is also black, leads a group called the Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights.

The other two recipients were José Daniel Ferrer García, a youth activist from the Christian Liberation Movement; and Librado Linares García, founder of the Cuban Reflection Movement, a human rights organization. Both are in jail.

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