HAVANA – In the seven months since the U.S. and Cuba declared detente, American politicians have flooded Havana to see the sights, meet the country's new entrepreneurs and discuss the possible end of the U.S. trade embargo with leaders of the communist government.
Their agendas have also featured an increasingly conspicuous hole — the spot once occupied by U.S.-backed dissidents who then sat at the center of Washington's policy on Cuba.
According to an Associated Press count confirmed by leading dissidents, more than 20 U.S. lawmakers have come to Cuba since February without meeting with opposition groups that once were an obligatory stop for congressional delegations.
Advocates of President Barack Obama's outreach to Cuba say it's a more intelligent way to push for democratic reform on the island. After decades of fruitlessly trying to strengthen the government's opponents, they see diplomatic engagement as the best method for persuading Cuba it's time to open the political system and keep loosening control of the centrally planned economy.
That's left many dissidents feeling increasingly sidelined and abandoned as both countries celebrate milestones like Monday's opening of embassies in Havana and Washington.
"The only thing they want is to open up business, the embassy," said Berta Soler, leader of a faction of the Ladies in White, one of the island's best-known dissident groups. "Whenever someone high-level came from the United States before, they always made time to meet with us before getting on the plane (back home), and that's not happening."
Legislative staffers say Cuban officials have made clear that if Congress members meet with dissidents, they will not get access to high-ranking officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man expected to be the next president of Cuba who has met with U.S. politicians like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
With embassies reopened and Cuba and the U.S. formally discussing issues such as human rights, increased Internet access and opening trade, supporters of the new U.S. policy say talking with Cuban leaders is clearly the most promising way to promote reform on the island.
"Some (dissidents) may feel that because of the decision (to restore ties), their views are not being reflected as they would hope," said Tim Rieser, a senior adviser to Leahy who accompanied him on a trip to Cuba last month. But "the senator believes that it makes no sense to continue a policy that has failed to achieve any of its objectives. It hasn't helped the Cuban people, and it is time to try a different way."
Cuban officials are highly sensitive to the issue of domestic dissidents, whom they call mercenaries and tools of a U.S.-backed policy aimed at overturning the half-century-old socialist revolution.
Many dissidents receive support from anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida. They have been unable to generate widespread support on the island because of intense government pressure aimed at stifling popular organizing and because many ordinary Cubans believe dissidents only want to earn money, renown and visas to live in the U.S.
Advocates for the Obama administration's policy say recent congressional visits have aimed to take the pulse of a broader swath of society: small-time entrepreneurs who have set up shop under the economic reforms of recent years; foreign diplomats and businesspeople operating in Havana; and regular Cubans who have complaints about Internet access and other issues without calling outright for a 180-degree change of the political system.
Leahy was part of a U.S. delegation that met with dissidents in January, the last one to do so, and he plans to keep talking to the opposition going forward.
"Senator Leahy has met with and listened to dissidents, he respects them and he shares their aspirations for human rights in Cuba," Rieser said, arguing that previous U.S. policy did not help them. "By supporting engagement with Cuba, we can increase our ability to support the freedoms that they and people everywhere deserve."
As part of the deal to re-establish diplomatic relations, Cuba released 53 people imprisoned for months or years on what the U.S. and many rights groups called politically based charges. The subsequent warming of ties with the U.S. has also coincided with a decrease in the more common short-term detentions of political activists in Cuba, according to figures compiled by activists.
The non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation says there were 2,822 politically related detentions in the first six months of 2015, less than half the 5,904 registered in the same period last year.
Commission president Elizardo Sanchez says those arrested report being treated more roughly, however.
On a recent Sunday, a few dozen of the Ladies in White marched quietly down a main avenue in Havana, talked in a circle underneath a leafy grove of trees and then suddenly marched to an intersection where they jumped up and down and cried "Freedom!"
Seemingly out of nowhere, counter-protesters swarmed the group, yelling pro-government slogans and accusing them of being "worms" bent on undermining the revolution. Police swooped in, plucked the dissidents from the melee, loaded them on waiting buses and drove off.
The Ladies in White say their demonstrations have been broken up in this manner every Sunday for months. Recently the group has been departing from unwritten rules under which their marches were tolerated as long as they did not stray from their traditional route or incorporate male demonstrators, and it may be a deliberate tactic to provoke a reaction and draw attention.
Activists and supporters contend they should be free to demonstrate wherever and in whatever company they choose, and lament that U.S.-Cuba detente has not changed their inability to do so.
"The fact that the Obama administration would agree to begin this political process without a clear mandate on matters like the promotion of democracy and human rights has allowed the regime to gain legitimacy," said Antonio Rodiles, head of a pro-democracy group called Estado de SATS.
Rodiles' claim that his nose was broken during a recent arrest prompted an expression of concern from the U.S. State Department.
Despite such incidents, even some of Rodiles' fellow long-time dissidents say the new U.S. policy is correct.
"I think they are talking with the people they need to talk to, that is, the Cuban government," Sanchez said. "We are not the ones they need to convince; it is the government that must be persuaded."
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