HAVANA — Following a day of meetings with Cuban officials to iron out the difficulties and formalities of restoring diplomatic relations, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson spent Friday hearing from the other side.
In a breakfast meeting with a group of seven prominent political dissidents here, a visit to Cuba’s most well-known dissident blogger and independent journalist, and dinner with other opponents of the Cuban government, Jacobson listened to the hopes and concerns of some of those President Obama has said his new opening to Cuba is designed to benefit over the long term.
While many were supportive and optimistic, others were doubtful, and faulted the administration for giving legitimacy to the Cuban government while getting little in return.
In what passes for politics in Cuba’s tightly controlled system, dissident groups took advantage of the scores of foreign reporters covering the diplomatic talks to hold dueling news conferences in private living rooms and verandas crowded with television cameras.
At least one activist, Berta Soler of the Ladies in White group of political prisoner families, said she refused Jacobson’s breakfast invitation. Two others who attended said they used the opportunity to tell her that they disapproved of the new U.S. policy.
“The breakfast was cordial, but we said we still have doubts about the next steps,” Antonio Rodiles, founder of the activist group Estado de SATS, said in a news conference along with several other like-minded activists at his home.
They said that concessions on human rights and free expression should have been a pre-condition of any new U.S. policy, and that the Cuban diaspora, primarily in the United States, should also be consulted. The administration, several in the group said, was effectively cherry-picking its preferred dissidents, focusing attention on those who supported Obama’s outreach.
But others expressed hope that Thursday’s high-level government-to-government talks — the first since diplomatic relations were severed in 1961 — would lead to the first significant developments in the government’s repression of civil and human rights.
“People are still assimilating it,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of the Cuban Patriotic Union, said of the turn of events. Some people, he said, resent that the United States and Cuba held 18 months of secret talks before announcing last month that they would restore diplomatic ties.
“But we think those discussions ended at a good point,” Ferrer said. His organization, known as UNPACU, its Spanish acronym, is widely considered the largest and most active opposition group, with up to 5,000 open and underground members.
“We don’t expect miracles,” said Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights. Brandishing a list of 24 prisoners he said have been detained for between 12 to 24 years for politically associated crimes, Sanchez said that ongoing U.S. pressure on human rights issues was “essential, for as long as this system of political and economic repression continues.”
In addition to Ferrer, Sanchez and Rodiles, those attending the Jacobson breakfast included former Cuban diplomat, independent journalist and Ladies in White founder Miriam Leiva; Hector Maceda, president of the Cuban Liberal Democratic Party; activist and hunger striker Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas; and dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque.
Late in the afternoon, Jacobson visited the offices of the digital news Web site 14ymedio.com, near Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, to meet with its director, Yoani Sanchez. Sanchez, whose blog about the situation here is blocked in Cuba but widely read outside the country, has written favorably about the U.S. policy changes and a sense of hope among the Cuban people.
Asked about Jacobson’s meetings with dissidents, Josefina Vidal, Jacobson’s Cuban Foreign Ministry counterpart, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that “this small group of people don’t represent society, don’t represent the interests of the Cuban people.”
In a morning news conference, Jacobson said that the new policy was “fundamentally about promoting freedom and openness that will help to empower the Cuban people.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know exactly how this is going to work out in the next year or the next 10 years,” she said. “What I do know . . . is what has happened in the last 50 years. I know the policy we pursued served slowly to isolate us and not create the empowerment of the Cuban people we were seeking.”
Jacobson repeated, as did Vidal, that “profound differences” between the two governments remain following Thursday’s inaugural talks. But all of those differences do not have to be resolved before diplomatic relations are restored, Jacobson said.
“Having diplomatic relations is not a gift,” she said, speaking in Spanish to respond to questions from Cuban reporters. “It’s not something that means we are countries without differences. We have differences with lots of countries in the world, some of them deep, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have diplomatic relations with them.”
Before embassies are established — a process that both sides said would take at least one and more likely several additional meetings — the administration has said Cuba must lift limits on diplomatic activities here.
“To better do our jobs, for example, we should be able to travel around,” Jacobson said. “Cuban people ought to be able to freely access our new embassy . . . without having to give their names” to security police stationed at intervals around the building that houses the U.S. Interests Section here. American diplomatic personnel at the Interests Section are limited in number — 51 — and in their ability to travel without permission outside Havana province. The United States imposes numerical and geographic restrictions on diplomats in Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington, who can’t travel outside the Beltway without prior State Department approval.
Delegations headed by Jacobson and Vidal also discussed other aspects of normalized ties between the two countries, including trade and travel restrictions that Obama this month eased through executive action, despite the ongoing U.S. embargo against Cuba.
It won’t come “in a day or in a month,” Jacobson said, but the U.S. goal is to give Cubans more contact with each other and the outside world “so that Cubans can make their own decisions in the future.”
“For that to happen, our policy had to change,” she said. “We’re ready to move forward. We’ll have to see if Cuba is interested in moving as quickly as we are.”