Kerry cancels trip to Cuba amid frictions over human rights
Kerry cancels trip to Cuba amid frictions over human rights
The cancellation comes just two weeks before President Obama is to visit
Officials: Logistical challenges of two back-to-back visits also
contributed to cancellation
State Department: Kerry trip might be rescheduled at some point
BY TRACY WILKINSON
Tribune Washington Bureau
Secretary of State John F. Kerry has canceled a trip to Cuba two weeks
before President Barack Obama visits the communist-ruled nation as
diplomats haggle over which Cuban dissidents the president will be
allowed to meet.
The back and forth over human rights is another sign of how prickly
U.S.-Cuba relations remain despite the restoration of diplomatic ties,
and the easing of many travel and trade restrictions, over the past year.
It also highlights a potential problem for Obama’s planned March visit,
the first by a sitting president in nearly 90 years, to the former Cold
There was not “common agreement” between the State Department and Cuban
counterparts on aspects of Kerry’s trip, including his ability to meet
with dissidents, said a U.S. official.
Despite the U.S. push toward normalization of relations, the government
in Havana has done little to ease its limits on free expression or to
improve treatment of human rights activists and political dissidents.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro has supported opening the Cuban economy to
incorporate free market elements, including private enterprise and
private ownership of homes and cars, for the first time since the 1959
revolution that brought the communists to power.
But he has insisted that the political system and the “socialist nature
of the revolution” will not change. His Foreign Ministry official for
U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, has described the U.S. focus on human
rights as hypocritical.
Despite that resistance, Obama, in his announcement last month of his
trip, said he aims to engage with the Cuban people. Previously, he had
said he would not go unless Cuba allowed significant progress on human
“As I did when I met President Castro last year, I’ll speak candidly
about our serious differences with the Cuban government, including on
democracy and human rights. I’ll reaffirm that the United States will
continue to stand up for universal values like freedom of speech and
assembly and religion,” Obama said in his weekly address the day after
his Cuba trip was announced.
He said he intended to speak directly with the Cuban people, including
members of Cuba’s civil society and Cuban entrepreneurs.
Kerry, who flew to Havana in August to reopen the U.S. Embassy, had
planned to return this week to lay the groundwork for Obama’s visit. But
that trip was canceled, officials said Thursday, when arrangements could
not be finalized.
The secretary of state “is still interested in visiting in the near
future, and we are working with our Cuban counterparts and our embassy
to determine the best time frame,” said John Kirby, the State Department
Other officials said the new U.S. Embassy, which remains a bare-bones
operation, was overwhelmed trying to arrange back-to-back visits by
Kerry and Obama.
When U.S. diplomats began negotiations for Obama’s visit, they said any
attempt to block him from meeting dissidents would be a deal breaker,
according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity
because of diplomatic sensitivities.
Who Obama speaks to, the venue he chooses — private conversations, at a
reception or during a speech — and certainly what he says will be
closely watched in Cuba, South Florida and beyond.
Some Cuban exiles say the president should talk about democratic
elections and voting, meet directly with dissidents and condemn the lack
of basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. They
wonder how the president will define his meetings with civil society and
who will be included.
Conversing with Castro, they say, won’t help the Cuban people but will
only legitimize the regime.
“I hope that President Obama sees the folly of his visit which
legitimizes the oppressive Castro regime and cancels his visit, which
only gives the oppressors the green light to continue repressing those
who seek their fundamental human rights,” said South Florida Republican
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“He’s not doing this trip to be best buddies with Raúl Castro. He’s a
realist and he wants to have outreach with the Cuban people,” said Jose
W. Fernandez, a Cuban-born lawyer and former assistant secretary of
state for economic, energy and business affairs.
“I think Cuba will allow the president to meet with second and
third-tier dissidents who are no threat to the Cuban government,” Andy
Gomez, a Cuba analyst who lives in Coral Gables, told the Miami Herald.
“I hope the State Department realizes these aren’t the real dissidents.”
Political dissidents in Cuba are a varied bunch.
Some are so bitterly anti-Castro, they disapprove of Obama’s
rapprochement, favor the embargo and might refuse an invitation. Others,
known worldwide, are despised by the Cuban government.
Cuba now holds several dozen political prisoners in its jails, according
to Cuban activists, down from several hundred a few years ago. But the
government still harasses dissidents by detaining them for brief periods.
In January, 1,414 political dissidents were detained, the second-highest
number in years, according to Elizardo Sanchez, head of the opposition
Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. He said
56 of the detainees were beaten.
“Do the Cuban people deserve this visit? The answer is overwhelmingly
yes,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, an umbrella
organization of groups that seek the lifting of all trade and travel
But Gomez fears the normalization process between the United States and
Cuba hasn’t reached a point where a presidential visit might not
generate embarrassing or unforeseen consequences.
“There are a lot of loose ends. Cuba hasn’t really come to the table
with much that is concrete,” he said. “People at the State Department
are telling me that the Cubans don’t even return their phone calls. So
why send the president of the United States?”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.
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