Critics of the Cuban government told a U.S. congressional delegation in Havana on Friday that the island’s main problem is its own government, and that respect for human rights must be the first item on the table for any Cuba-U.S. negotiations.
Led by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Richard Shelby, R-Al., the delegation also met with Cuban ruler Raúl Castro and Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor whose 15-year prison sentence in Havana has stymied efforts to improve bilateral relations.
It was the first time that senior U.S. visitors had met with Cuban dissidents since former President Jimmy Carter was in Havana in March of 2011. Cuban authorities in the past have rejected visits by U.S. delegations that insisted on meeting with activists.
Attending the meeting were Ladies in White leader Bertha Soler and husband Angel Moya; Catholic activists Oswaldo Payá and Dagoberto Valdés; activist Antonio Rodiles; and dissident Oscar Elias Biscet and wife Elsa Morejón. Moya and Biscet were freed last year after spending nearly eight years in prison.
Moya said the visitors made no declarations, asked several questions and listened attentively as the seven government critics laid out their own views.
“We brought them up to date on the real situation in Cuba, and I said that they must be careful, because if 40 years ago (Cuban authorities) were not interested in commercial relations with the United States, today they are,” Moya said.
“This is a government that uses the resources of the people to strengthen and equip its repressive forces,” he added. “So it is very important for us that respect for human rights would be the first framework for any negotiations.”
The Obama administration has allowed vastly increased travel to Cuba, sparking complaints from some Castro critics that the travelers’ money is winding up in the pockets of the communist-ruled government.
Payá, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, said the dissidents did not ask for U.S. sanctions on Cuba, but did urge “solidarity, recognition for the rights of the people of Cuba.”
“We explained,” he added, “that while there are problems between the U.S. and Cuban governments to discuss, the Cuban government’s principal problem is with the people of Cuba, with a people that wants change and which the government shuts their doors to the future.”
Leahy chairs the judiciary committee and Shelby is the ranking Republican on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee. Also at the 40-minute meeting were Sens Christopher Coons, D-Md., and Kent Conrad, D-ND., and Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Ca., and Peter Welch, D-Vt.
Leahy told The Associated Press in Havana that he met with Gross on Thursday at his prison in Havana, and that he and Shelby met with Castro for 2 ½ hours later in the day and offered to take Gross home to Maryland when they left Cuba.
“You can imagine how far that went,” Leahy was quoted as saying. He added that “we have a long way to go” to win Gross’s release.
Coons said that the delegation had “vigorous discussions” on Gross, and that during their meeting the Maryland man gave him a little blue bracelet woven from bottle caps.
“He smiled and said, ‘I have a lot of time on my hands. Hope it keeps me in your mind,” he told The Miami Herald after the delegation arrived in Haiti. “It’s clear (that) were he to serve a long sentence, it would be very hard on him.”
Gross, 62, was arrested in Havana in late 2009 and sentenced to 15 years. He was providing Jewish groups with communications equipment paid for by a U.S. government pro-democracy program that Cuba says is aimed at toppling the Castro government.
Leahy told the AP that Castro had said Gross “was no spy” but did bring up the subject of the five Cuban intelligence officers arrested in Miami in 1998 and sentenced to long prison terms.
Cuba says the five were in South Florida only to spy on violent exiles and avert their attacks on Cuba, and has often hinted that Gross and the Cubans could go home in simultaneous “humanitarian gestures.”