WASHINGTON – President Bush will observe the 101st anniversary of Cuba's creation as an independent republic by meeting on Tuesday with Cuban dissidents and former political prisoners.
The dissidents include family members of some of the more than 70 Cubans arrested in March as part of a sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy activists. All were given lengthy prison terms after brief trials.
The government of President Fidel Castro (search) sees the dissidents as counterrevolutionaries who worked closely with the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. It also does not recognize May 20 as an independence day, as the day is sometimes called.
Among those Bush will receive is Ramon Colas (search), who started an independent library movement in Cuba and left the island after undergoing severe harassment by the authorities.
A senior official said heated arguments erupted Monday among Cuban-American lawmakers and administration officials over the invitation list and other arrangements for Tuesday's event.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said that during Tuesday's meeting, Bush will listen to the stories of "brave men and women who have survived Castro's regime."
It was not clear as of Monday evening whether Bush will announce any policy changes toward Cuba. Debate among officials was continuing.
Several Cuban-American groups are hoping that Bush will use the occasion to tighten sanctions against Cuba, pursue a policy of regime change or strengthen U.S. government television and radio broadcasts to the island.
May 20 is the anniversary of the founding of the Cuban republic in 1902 following the Spanish-American War. The Castro government does not recognize the holiday, contending that Cuba did not achieve true self-determination until the 1959 revolution.
Bush's plans for this May 20 appear to be much more low-key than last year's anniversary, when he gave a speech on the White House lawn, then flew to Miami to preside at an anti-Castro rally that drew thousands.
The president's meeting "reinforces the fact that we have, not far off our shores, a brutal, non-democratic regime that oppresses its people," White House spokesman Sean McCormack said. "You have an entire country that is under the heel of this brutal regime, repressing the hopes of its people for a better way of life."