Latin America & Caribbean

Why US is looking beyond dissidents on Cuban human rights

U.S. President Barack Obama attends a meeting with Cuban dissidents at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016. Image copyright Reuters

On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama met several prominent Cuban dissidents, including Berta Soler, who is part of a group known as Ladies in White, at the US embassy in Havana.

It was a dramatic moment and gave Mr Obama a chance to highlight the issue of international human rights in Cuba.

He has brought the subject up several times during his trip.

Cuban President Raul Castro has responded by denying that Cuba has political prisoners. Besides that, Castro says, Americans violate human rights of people at Guantanamo and in other places.

Many Cubans agree with him.

"Give back Guantanamo," said Albino Moldes, a Cuban-born photographer who was waiting at the Havana airport on Sunday for President Obama to arrive. "And then we talk."

President Obama and his aides said they are happy to talk about problems in the US and in Cuba. But they will not return control of the military base at Guantanamo to Cubans.

"We've made it very clear that's not on the table," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy National Security Adviser, at a news conference in Havana on Monday.

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Media captionWho are the Ladies in White?

In other words, it's business as usual - for US and Cuban officials.

Over the weekend dozens of people were arrested at a demonstration staged by the Ladies in White, including Ms Soler.

And another dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, was detained at Jose Marti airport on the day a group of US journalists arrived. He was released shortly afterwards. By the time the journalists got there, things looked calm - as if nothing had happened.

Cuba experts said there is a reason for the arrests.

Image copyright Getty Images

"There's a string of people - the old guard - who are not really thrilled about the opening," said Eric Olson, a director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, describing the new relationship between the US and Cuba.

"How do you control it? Some of it is done by exerting their power," Mr Olson said, explaining these officials try to show that they are still in control by arresting the activists.

At times, though, it seems like "shadow boxing", a term that Mr Obama has used to describe the relationship between the two countries.

More on Mr Obama's visit to Cuba

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Media captionYoung Cubans: "We don't want a lot of McDonalds and Starbucks"

Six sticking points to better relations - Guantanamo Bay, human rights and media freedoms are among the unresolved issues

In Pictures: Obama's trip to Cuba - The historic visit to Havana in photos

Internet access still restricted in Cuba - Only about 5% of Cubans have web access at home

US officials tell me privately they knew beforehand that the activists would be arrested. The activists themselves had told the Americans what they planned to do - and that they would be arrested for it.

Still Obama administration officials say things have improved, despite these setbacks. Detentions for activists are shorter than they were in the past. People talk on the streets openly, and they have better access to the internet.

The history of US-Cuba relations has been intricately intertwined with the story of human rights. For years Americans have invested on average about $20m annually in a variety of programmes in Cuba, according to a congressional staffer, including those that support civil society.

Cuban officials portray the US aid as a "regime-change programme", a sneaky way for Americans to infiltrate Cuba and control its people.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A Cuban protesters is arrested last December

In a similar vein dissidents are cast as US-funded actors.

"The Cuban government has been very effective in saying they're paid mercenaries of the US," says the Brookings Institution's Ted Piccone, who studies Latin America.

Obama administration officials have been trying to soften these accusations by approaching the subject of human rights differently. They try to promote freedom and democracy in a more inclusive way, embracing civil society as a whole rather than focusing on a small group of dissidents.

In a speech about Cuba before Obama left for Havana, National Security Adviser Susan Rice used the word "dissident" once - at the end of her remarks. She spoke instead about activists and civil society.

It's an important distinction, Mr Olson said, because the term "dissident" means "a very clear set of 200 people", a group that includes Ms Soler and others who are politically engaged and are arrested on a regular basis.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Miriam Celeya listens to President Barack Obama during their meeting at the US embassy

"I think the administration would like to think more broadly," he said. Instead of working only with dissidents, US officials support those who work in non-governmental organisations, journalism, as well as ordinary Cubans who are working for change.

(One official says they use the terms "dissident" and "activists" interchangeably, while another says Rice's speech underscores the point - they'd rather talk about civil society than just dissidents. It shows that even the people who work on US policy disagree about what Americans should do to help Cubans.)

Still language isn't the most important thing. The real issue, Mr Olson, said is freedom, democracy and human rights for people in Cuba.

"Is that going to happen?" he asked.

The matter will be decided not by US officials, though, but by Cubans themselves. For them, it's a tricky - and long-term - project.