HAVANA: The highest-ranking US official to visit Cuba in three decades met with leading dissidents, but one prominent opposition figure stayed out amid differences over Washington’s rapprochement with Havana.
Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s top official for Latin America, met with seven government critics under crystal chandeliers at the lavish mansion of the head of the US Interests Section in Havana.
The meeting came a day after Jacobson attended landmark talks with Cuban officials, in which the Cold War rivals agreed to meet again in their bid to reopen mutual embassies and normalize ties that broke in 1961.
Jacobson told reporters the get-together with dissidents allowed her to “listen well to their discrepancies or support for the new policy.”
But Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White group of spouses of political prisoners, turned down the invitation to attend the breakfast meeting with Jacobson.
“It was very important for me to listen to their perspectives and how we can support civil society in the future,” she said, without addressing Soler’s absence.
The Cuban government criticized the gathering but indicated that the talks to normalize ties “will continue.”
“This small group of people don’t represent Cuban society, don’t represent the interests of the Cuban people,” Cuba’s chief negotiator Josefina Vidal told US television network MSNBC.
“So that’s a big difference with the United States government.”
Soler said she chose to skip the meeting because there participants did not reflect diverse opinions.
“If a diversity of opinions is sought, if differences are respected, then it should be balanced,” Soler told Agence France-Presse.
Some of the dissidents who met Jacobson played down the differences.
“This question of whether or not we welcome this dialogue between the US and Cuban government is secondary,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of a dissident group in western Cuba, told reporters.
“What’s important is that we remain united in that freedom, democracy and respect of human rights are the fundamental issues in this case.”
He said they conveyed to Jacobson the “importance of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and people.”
Cuba’s dissident community has been divided over US President Barack Obama’s December agreement with Cuban leader Raul Castro to seek normal ties.
Some have praised the move, while others worry too much was conceded to the communist regime without getting much in return.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the formally banned but tolerated Cuban National Human Rights Commission, said he supports the US policy shift but was not expecting “any miracles in the short term.”
“Hopefully I am wrong, but the situation will continue to be very unfavorable due to the drastically intransigent position of the totalitarian regime of the Castro brothers, which is what needs to change,” he said.
Besides Ferrer and Sanchez, participants included Martha Beatriz Roque, Miriam Leiva, Hector Maseda, Antonio Gonzalez-Rodiles and Guillermo Farinas.
Jacobson met later with dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez in the office of her website 14ymedio.com, where they “discussed the state of independent journalism in Cuba,” a US State Department official said.
Jacobson said Washington would continue to speak directly with the Cuban government about its concerns over human rights.
While the rapprochement aims to resume diplomatic relations, she said it also seeks “to empower the Cuban people with the goal of having a free and democratic country so close to the United States.”
In the afternoon, she took a stroll along Old Havana’s streets to the office of Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Jacobson “appreciated the opportunity to listen to the perspectives of Cardinal Ortega, as she appreciates the views of other religious groups, on the situation in Cuba,” a US official said.
The two discussed the “important role” the Vatican played in mediating the US-Cuba policy shift, the official said.