Critics of the Cuban government told a U.S. congressional delegationin Havana on Friday that the island’s main problem is its owngovernment, and that respect for human rights must be the first itemon the table for any Cuba-U.S. negotiations.
Led by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Richard Shelby, R-Al., thedelegation also met with Cuban ruler Raúl Castro and Alan Gross, aU.S. government subcontractor whose 15-year prison sentence in Havanahas stymied efforts to improve bilateral relations.
It was the first time that senior U.S. visitors had met with Cubandissidents since former President Jimmy Carter was in Havana in Marchof 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 andhusband Angel Moya; Catholic activists Oswaldo Payá and DagobertoValdés; activist Antonio Rodiles; and dissident Oscar Elias Biscet andwife Elsa Morejón. Moya and Biscet were freed last year after spendingnearly eight years in prison.
Moya said the visitors made no declarations, asked several questionsand listened attentively as the seven government critics laid outtheir own views.
“We brought them up to date on the real situation in Cuba, and I saidthat 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 tostrengthen and equip its repressive forces,” he added. “So it is veryimportant for us that respect for human rights would be the firstframework for any negotiations.”
The Obama administration has allowed vastly increased travel to Cuba,sparking complaints from some Castro critics that the travelers’ moneyis winding up in the pockets of the communist-ruled government.
Payá, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, said thedissidents 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 theU.S. and Cuban governments to discuss, the Cuban government’sprincipal problem is with the people of Cuba, with a people that wantschange and which the government shuts their doors to the future.”
Leahy chairs the judiciary committee and Shelby is the rankingRepublican on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee. Alsoat the 40-minute meeting were Sens Christopher Coons, D-Md., and KentConrad, 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 onThursday at his prison in Havana, and that he and Shelby met withCastro for 2 ½ hours later in the day and offered to take Gross hometo Maryland when they left Cuba.
“You can imagine how far that went,” Leahy was quoted as saying. Headded 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 bluebracelet woven from bottle caps.
“He smiled and said, ‘I have a lot of time on my hands. Hope it keepsme in your mind,” he told The Miami Herald after the delegationarrived 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 15years. He was providing Jewish groups with communications equipmentpaid for by a U.S. government pro-democracy program that Cuba says isaimed at toppling the Castro government.
Leahy told the AP that Castro had said Gross “was no spy” but didbring up the subject of the five Cuban intelligence officers arrestedin Miami in 1998 and sentenced to long prison terms.
Cuba says the five were in South Florida only to spy on violent exilesand avert their attacks on Cuba, and has often hinted that Gross andthe Cubans could go home in simultaneous “humanitarian gestures.”