By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's decision to end five decades of enmity with Cuba has shaken the island's political dissidents, dividing their ranks and forcing them to rethink tactics.
Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the United States relied on the small dissident movement to lead domestic opposition to Cuba's communist government and keep track of human rights abuses.
So after Obama last week tore up the tough, decades-old policy aimed at crippling Cuba, some dissidents feel betrayed and unsure of their movement, which infuriates the government and has limited public support.
The United States will still encourage Cubans to push for more political rights but it now has its own direct channel to President Raul Castro's government, raising uncertainty about the dissidents' future value to the Americans.
While some dissident leaders welcomed the policy shift for stripping Cuba's government of excuses for economic shortages and strict political control, others complained the deal was negotiated without their knowledge and against their will.
"President Obama has made a mistake," said Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, a largely Roman Catholic group that has protest marches each Sunday. "This is going to benefit the Cuban government, strengthening and equipping its repressive machine."
While her group was marching on the streets, enduring harassment and detention, the U.S. government was engaged in secret talks with Havana over the past 18 months.
Guillermo Fariñas, who was detained like clockwork at 38 consecutive weekly protests outside his home this year in the city of Santa Clara, was even more blunt.
"I feel betrayed," said Fariñas, who was bothered by the secrecy of the talks and said the views of dissidents were discounted. "I know some people are offended by that word, but I use it on purpose."
Fariñas was in the minority during a landmark meeting of 29 dissidents from across Cuba who gathered for 10 hours on Monday at the office of 14ymedio, the news and opinion website of prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez.
Soler did not attend. Other senior dissident leaders either welcomed Obama's policy shift or accepted it as a reality beyond their control.
In a joint statement, they applauded the prisoner swap that allowed the release of U.S. foreign aid worker Alan Gross and more than 50 unidentified Cuban prisoners.
A U.S. official described the freed Cubans as political prisoners, but the dissidents have yet to confirm any of their people were released, leaving them wondering who exactly the United States fought to get free.
Participants in the meeting said they aired their differences inside but then agreed to present a united front. Reporters and diplomats were banned and all 29 dissidents placed their cell phones in a basket for the entire 10 hours.
Veteran leader Elizardo Sanchez declined to define the sharpest points of disagreement, but said they all recognized that Obama's move required a new approach to pressuring the government and seeking popular support.
"With this change, the discourse of the government has to change, and so does ours ... Now is the time for us to readjust our tactics due to the changing political scene," Sanchez said.
They have only just started thinking about what those tactics might be.
Cuba's government routinely accuses dissidents of being "mercenaries" of the U.S. government and many Cubans are skeptical about their motives, believing they are driven by the modest economic aide afforded by foreign groups.
Still, Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, said he was optimistic. "There's a new dynamic and we think it will be very positive for the future of Cuba."
The 29 reaffirmed their demands for multiparty elections, the release of all political prisoners and respect for the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But the discord from the Ladies in White was notable.
Images of Cuban police roughing up the Ladies in White at demonstrations have raised their profile, placing them among the most celebrated dissidents in the United States, along with Yoani Sanchez.
She has yet to offer strong opinions about the U.S. policy change, but other young dissidents have decided to embrace it.
"The worst thing we can do is cry about what happened," said Eliecer Avila, 29, the leader of Somos Mas (We Are More). "We should take Raul and Obama at their word. There was never a better opportunity than now for us bring our peoples together, and this is an opportunity we should not pass up."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Rosa Tania Valdés; Editing by Kieran Murray)