Cuban police and state security agents arrested roughly 60 "Ladies in White" as they attempted to march in Havana following Sunday Mass. (Nick Miroff,Karen DeYoung/The Washington Post)

President Obama went sightseeing in Old Havana, savoring the adulation of pro-regime crowds welcoming him on streets that had been whitewashed for his visit. But a few hours before his arrival, the true nature of the dictatorship he is embracing reared its ugly head, as hundreds of uniformed security personnel attacked and arrested peaceful protesters leaving Palm Sunday Mass.

A group of dissidents known as the Ladies in White was met outside Havana’s Santa Rita church by an organized crowd of Castro loyalists shouting insults and revolutionary slogans. Then, The Post reports, Castro’s secret police pounced on the women and “half-dragged, half-carried them to waiting buses,” while men marching with the women “were chased, thrown to the curb and handcuffed.” As they were arrested, the crowd chanted “This is Fidel’s street!”

This was a slap in the face to President Obama — a display intended to send a clear message that, despite his normalization of relations, nothing has changed in Cuba.

How little respect do the Castro brothers have for Obama? This month, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes met in Miami with Carlos Amel Oliva, head of the youth wing of a major dissident organization on the island. When Oliva returned to Cuba, he was detained by the regime for “antisocial behavior.” His was just one of 526 political detentions in the first two weeks of March leading up to Obama’s trip.

Obama had promised not to visit Cuba under such conditions. In 2014, Obama said he would visit Cuba only if “I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom,” adding: “If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there. I’m not interested in just validating the status quo.”

Well, Mr. President, Cuba is heading backwards. Repression on the island has increased dramatically since Obama’s new policy of engagement with the Castro regime was announced. According to Amnesty International, political detentions in Cuba are at the highest level in “many years” and “Cuban human rights activists are at increased risk of detention or harassment from the authorities.”

Last December, 126 Cuban former political prisoners wrote Obama a letter to report that “Violent beatings against activists peacefully assembling have escalated and worsened over 2015. Politically motivated arbitrary detentions in Cuba as of the end of November 2015 are [at] a documented total of 7,686 and are on track to break the previous record set in 2014 with 8,899 arrests. Over the course of this year, the number of detentions have escalated: 178 in January; 492 in February; 610 in March; 338 in April; 641 in May; 563 in June; 674 in July; 768 in August; 882 in September; 1,093 in October; and 1,447 in November.”

“We the undersigned are political prisoners who collectively have served 1,945 years in prison for resisting the Castro dictatorship and fighting for democracy in our homeland of Cuba,” they wrote, adding: “Based on our history and experience as political prisoners under Castro’s totalitarian regime,” they wrote, “the new Cuba policy established by your Administration has been a regrettable mistake. This will prolong the life of the dictatorship, is worsening the human rights situation there, marginalizing the democratic opposition and compromising US national security.”

Despite this increased political repression — and despite his own promise not to “validate” this repression by visiting while it persists — the president is in Havana anyway.

Well, maybe Obama is planning to use his visit in Havana to deliver a “tear down this wall” message? Don’t hold your breath. According to Rhodes, the United States is no longer in favor of an end to the Castro regime. Speaking to reporters before Obama’s visit, Rhodes said: “The difference here is that in the past, because of certain U.S. policies, the message that was delivered in that regard either overtly or implicitly suggested that the U.S. was seeking to pursue regime change, that the U.S. was seeking to essentially overturn the government in Cuba or that the U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba.” Obama’s message in Havana, Rhodes said, is “that the United States is not a hostile nation seeking regime change” and the president “will make very clear that that’s up to the Cuban people.”

Good God.

Obama’s message to the Cuban people is that we don’t want regime change in Havana? And why is a senior White House official echoing regime propaganda that the “U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba”? There is only one thing stopping the Cuban people from choosing the political direction of Cuba — and that is the Castro regime.

Cuba is, along with North Korea, the most repressive totalitarian regime left on the face of the earth. Obama’s visit is a betrayal of the dissidents on the island who are risking their lives for democracy and human rights. As Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident journalist and winner of the European Union’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for human rights, put it after normalization was announced: “We live in daily fear that we will be killed by the fascist government. And now, the U.S. — our ally — turns its back on us and prefers to sit with our killers.”

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