WASHINGTON – The Obama administration doesn't plan to invite Cuban dissidents to Secretary of State John Kerry's historic flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday, vividly illustrating how U.S. policy is shifting focus from the island's opposition to its single-party government. Instead, Kerry intends to meet more quietly with prominent activists later in the day, officials said.
The Cuban opposition has occupied the center of U.S. policy toward the island since the nations cut diplomatic relations in 1961. The Cuban government labels its domestic opponents as traitorous U.S. mercenaries. As the two countries have moved to restore relations, Cuba has almost entirely stopped meeting with American politicians who visit dissidents during trips to Havana.
That presented a quandary for U.S. officials organizing the ceremony to mark the reopening of the embassy on Havana's historic waterfront. Inviting dissidents would risk a boycott by Cuban officials including those who negotiated with the U.S. after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente on Dec. 17. Excluding dissidents would certainly provoke fierce criticism from opponents of Obama's new policy, including Cuban-American Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
Officials familiar with the plans for Kerry's visit, the first by a sitting U.S. secretary of state to Cuba since World War II, told The Associated Press that a compromise was in the works. The dissidents won't be invited to the embassy event but a small group will meet with Kerry at the U.S. chief of mission's home in the afternoon, where a lower-key, flag-raising ceremony is scheduled.
Their presence at the embassy would have risked setting back the new spirit of cooperation the U.S. hopes to engender, according to the officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly about internal planning and demanded anonymity. But not meeting them at all, they said, would send an equally bad signal.
"It wouldn't be surprising if North American diplomats prioritize contacts with the Cuban government," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a relatively moderate dissident group. "If we show up, they leave."
The Obama administration says it is normalizing ties with Cuba after more than 50 years of hostility failed to shake the communist state's hold on power. It argues that dealing directly with Cuba over issues ranging from human rights to trade is far likelier to produce democratic and free-market reforms over the long term.
Key dissidents told the AP late Tuesday that they had not received invitations to any of Friday's events.
Dissident Yoani Sanchez's online newspaper 14ymedio has received no credential for the U.S. embassy event, said editor Reinaldo Escobar, who is married to Sanchez.
"The right thing to do would be to invite us and hear us out despite the fact that we don't agree with the new U.S. policy," said Antonio Rodiles, head of the dissident group Estado de SATS.
In a letter to Kerry Tuesday, Rubio named Rodiles as one of the dissidents who should be invited to the embassy.
"They, among many others, and not the Castro family, are the legitimate representatives of the Cuban people," Rubio said.
The cautious approach is consistent with how Obama has handled the question of support for dissidents since he and Castro announced a prisoner swap in December and their intention to create a broader improvement in relations. The process has resulted in unilateral steps by Obama to ease the economic embargo on Cuba and last month's formal upgrading of both countries' interests sections into full-fledged embassies.
When senior diplomat Roberta Jacobson held talks in Havana in January, she met several government critics at the end of her historic trip but was restrained in her criticism of the government. Since then, American politicians have flooded Havana to see the sights, meet the country's new entrepreneurs and discuss possibly ending the U.S. embargo with leaders of the communist government.
According to an Associated Press count that matches tallies by leading dissidents, more than 20 U.S. lawmakers have visited Cuba since February without meeting the opposition groups that were once obligatory for congressional delegations.
This week, after Cuba briefly rounded up dozens of protesting dissidents, the U.S. didn't suggest such action would delay Kerry's trip or cool relations.
"The United States will continue to advocate for the rights to peaceful assembly, association and freedom of expression and religion, and we're going to continue to voice our support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Along with the flag-raising events, Kerry will meet Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. The pair could hold a joint news conference, in what would surely be a first since the Cuban Revolution toppled U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Kerry also plans a short walk around Cuba's 500-year-old capital, officials said.