Obama asks exiles for advice before Havana trip: 'Engage with Cuban people,' he's told

It was a meeting that would have been unthinkable just a decade – or less – ago.

The president of the United States gathered with a group of Cuban-Americans, many of them ironclad Republicans, on Wednesday explaining the intention behind restoring relations with Cuba and his upcoming trip to the island on Sunday.

President Barack Obama asked the advice of the exiles and sought out their concerns, which they unapologetically delivered.

"I said to the president, 'Empower the Cuban people and increase space for a civil society,'" Jorge Mas Santos – the head of the Cuban American National Foundation, long the most influential lobby group pushing for democratic reforms in Cuba – told Fox News Latino. "I said to him that he had to engage with the Cuban people and help them recognize that the power for change lies with them."

If Obama does that, Mas said, "the engagement between the Cuban people there and the United States can be very positive."

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The challenge, Santos and others at the meeting told Obama, was in giving the people of Cuba hope and determination to press for changes without giving more clout to a regime they say is inhumane and whose existence depends on a powerless and fearful population.

"Raúl Castro has said he is not changing" the political system, Mas noted. "They want to keep political control while benefiting economically" from the easing of trade and travel restrictions between the two nations.

"But that doesn't mean President Obama can't raise change in discussions."

Also at the White House meeting were music producer Emilio Estefan, former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, priests as well as people who provide humanitarian aid to Cuba.

So was Miami businessman and prominent Republican campaign donor, Mike Fernandez – who is going to the island to witness the historic occasion of the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years.

He told FNL that it's time to abandon a failed Cold War approach to Cuba and lift the embargo. He says it has failed to bring about the freedoms that its proponents believed it would.

Fernandez said Obama seemed keenly interested in everyone's input.

"He was very sensitive to what we said," Fernandez told FNL. "Each one of the 16 people there was able to add value to the conversation. The president actually took notes."

Many of the attendees left the meeting impressed by the president's detailed knowledge of Cuba, about its regulations regarding commerce and other aspects of its society, and his admission that much resistance remains in the Cuban government to loosening control over free speech, access to technology and who's in leadership positions in the regime.

Obama administration officials have said they have no illusions about seeing changes overnight, but that it was time to try a new approach.

And at least some of the Cuban-Americans in the meeting – Mike Fernandez among them – agree. He told FNL the embargo has failed to bring about the freedoms that its proponents believed it would.

The president is scheduled to visit a cathedral in Havana, where he will meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega. He also is scheduled to get together with some of Cuba's most prominent dissidents, reportedly he made that a condition of his visiting the island.

Obama also plans to meet with Cuban entrepreneurs, give a major speech on Tuesday directed to the people of Cuba and go to a baseball game between the major league Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

The president wants the embargo lifted, but Congress, which has a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, is nowhere near ready to eliminate it. So the administration has been doing everything to ease restrictions in other ways that it can.

"I have asked for data to show the embargo is working," Fernandez said. "I'm still waiting. If someone could show me that the embargo has produced the desired results, then I have to reconsider our positions. But why are we holding on to something that does not work?"

Remberto Perez, vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, says he does not trust the Castro government to use the restored relations to make life better for the Cuban people.

But the United States can apply pressure through its new relationship, Perez said, if the administration is persistent.

"The president has a great opportunity with this visit," he told FNL, "if he speaks to the Cuban people and sees with his own eyes what their life is like and what they are experiencing."

Perez added, "His legacy can be that he made a huge difference in Cuba, and made life better for the people, or that he placated the dictatorship."