HAVANA – President Barack Obama praised the bravery of Cuban dissidents Tuesday in a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, although opponents back home dismissed the event as a “token” gesture.
On the last day of a landmark trip that has seen him press for democracy on the communist-run island, Obama hosted more than a dozen figures from Cuba’s embattled civil society, the White House said.
“All of the individuals around this table have shown extraordinary courage,” Obama told the group. “They have spoken out on behalf of the issues that they care deeply about.”
The group included Berta Soler, of the opposition movement Ladies in White, who was briefly detained by police on Sunday as Obama arrived, and former hunger striker Guillermo Coco Farinas.
After the meeting, which lasted just over an hour, dissident Manuel Cuesta told AFP that it had been “excellent.”
“The president showed that he was very receptive and patient. He listened to all the different opinions of the participants,” Cuesta said.
Obama said the meeting was important to show that his trip was not only about meeting President Raul Castro “or government-to-government relations.”
“Much of this is a matter of us being able to hear directly from the Cuban people and making sure that they have a voice and making sure that their concerns and their ideas are helping to shape U.S. policy.”
Obama earlier made an address to the Cuban people that was broadcast live on national television and served as the capstone of a historic visit that critics say gave too much away to Castro with too little in return.
The Republican party’s national committee said Obama’s visit was an “embarrassing display of weakness and lack of moral clarity.”
“Absent any real progress on human rights or the release of political prisoners, President Obama’s visit to Cuba will be remembered as a historic mistake that legitimized an oppressive Communist regime.
“A token meeting with pre-screened dissidents can’t distract from the fact that political prisoners continue to languish in jail for expressing their beliefs.”
The White House believes that forcing Cuba to open up will bring democratic change.
Castro answered angrily when asked about the detention of political prisoners at a press conference Monday.
“After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners and if we have those political prisoners, they will all be released before the night ends,” he said, sticking to Havana’s insistence that no one is imprisoned for political reasons — only for crimes.