Ladies in White

Cuban dissidents, divided on U.S. outreach, call for more consultation
By Karen DeYoung February 3 2015

Visiting Cuban dissidents told Congress on Tuesday that while they might disagree on the wisdom of President Obama’s new policy toward Cuba, they were united in believing that further U.S. engagement with Havana should be based on consultation with political activists on the island.

“There is now a unique opportunity to assist the people of Cuba, and it must not be wasted,” independent journalist Miriam Leiva said at a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Berta Soler, head of the Ladies in White movement, said that even their disagreements were a step forward for the dissidents. “For us, they represent a complete exercise of politics,” she said. The group represents relatives of political prisoners in Cuba.

“The Cuban government is not a sovereign government; it has not been elected,” Soler said. “It has rejected the opinions of the Cuban people. They are the ones who own Cuba’s sovereignty; it’s very important to hear them.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who chaired the hearing, opposes Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and work toward “normalizing” the relationship. Earlier in the hearing, he pressed State Department officials to explain why, in addition to Cuban activists, they were not consulted during bilateral negotiations leading to Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement.

The secret negotiations, over 18 months, were conducted for the United States by two senior officials from the White House National Security Council.

“Nobody in my bureau was involved,” said Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who said she was not informed until just before the announcement.

But Jacobson said that preparations for the changes Obama announced in U.S. trade and travel policy toward Cuba were the product of far earlier work that was done by State and other government departments.

The work began shortly after Obama took office in early 2009, when he indicated he favored an end to the half-century of official estrangement with Cuba, according to several U.S. officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. But plans to move in that direction were suspended when Alan Gross, working on a U.S. government contract, was arrested in Cuba late that year and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for distributing Internet equipment on the island.

Gross’s December release, on humanitarian grounds, was agreed on during the secret NSC negotiations.

During the hearing, Rubio and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) expressed extreme doubt about Obama’s new policy, arguing that the government of Cuban President Raúl Castro had made no real concessions to win the restoration of relations and new trade possibilities.

But most other lawmakers, while saying they wanted ongoing human rights pressure on Havana, indicated they favored the initiative and encouraged Jacobson and Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, whose State Department brief includes human rights and democracy building, to directly counter the critics.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) asked Malinowski whether the new policy was “a gift” to the Cuban government.

“There’s nothing in the policy that we undertook that wasn’t something done in our national interest,” Malinowski said. “Some of it are things the Cuban government wouldn’t have asked for. .?.?. Many regimes do not consider a U.S. Embassy a gift. We’re pretty active and we’re pretty outspoken.”

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.

Source: Cuban dissidents, divided on U.S. outreach, call for more consultation – The Washington Post – http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cuban-dissidents-divided-on-us-outreach-call-for-more-consultation/2015/02/03/a98f29e4-abc7-11e4-ad71-7b9eba0f87d6_story.html

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