WASHINGTON (AP) — Cuban dissidents, so long the center of U.S. policy toward the island, won't be invited to Secretary of State John Kerry's historic flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday, vividly illustrating how U.S. policy is shifting focus to its single-party government. Kerry intends to meet more quietly with prominent activists later in the day, officials said.
The Cuban government labels its domestic opponents as traitorous U.S. mercenaries. As the two countries have moved to restore relations, Cuba has almost entirely stopped meeting with American politicians who visit dissidents during trips to Havana.
That presented a quandary for U.S. officials organizing the ceremony on Friday to mark the reopening of the embassy on Havana's historic waterfront. Inviting dissidents would risk a boycott by Cuban officials including those who negotiated with the U.S. after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente on Dec. 17. Excluding dissidents would certainly provoke fierce criticism from opponents of Obama's new policy, including Cuban-American Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
Officials familiar with the plans for Kerry's visit, the first by a sitting U.S. secretary of state to Cuba since World War II, told The Associated Press that a compromise was in the works. The dissidents won't be invited to the embassy event, but a small group will meet with Kerry at the U.S. chief of mission's home in the afternoon, where a lower-key, flag-raising ceremony is scheduled.
"That is a government-to-government moment, with very limited space, by the way, which is why we're having the reception later in the day at which we can have a cross-section of civil society including some dissidents," Kerry told the Telemundo network Wednesday evening.
"The message is, No. 1, that we believe our engaging in direct diplomatic relations with the Cuban government being there, being able to interact with the people of Cuba, will in fact, help the people of Cuba," he said.
The dissidents' presence at the embassy would have risked setting back the new spirit of cooperation the U.S. hopes to engender, according to the officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly about internal planning and demanded anonymity. But not meeting them at all, they said, would send an equally bad signal.
"It wouldn't be surprising if North American diplomats prioritize contacts with the Cuban government," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a relatively moderate dissident group. "If we show up, they leave."
The Obama administration says it is normalizing ties with Cuba after more than 50 years of hostility failed to shake the communist state's hold on power. It argues that dealing directly with Cuba over issues ranging from human rights to trade is far likelier to produce democratic and free-market reforms over the long term.
Key dissidents told the AP late Tuesday that they had not received invitations to any of Friday's events.
Dissident Yoani Sanchez's online newspaper 14ymedio has received no credential for the U.S. Embassy event, said editor Reinaldo Escobar, who is married to Sanchez.
"The right thing to do would be to invite us and hear us out despite the fact that we don't agree with the new U.S. policy," said Antonio Rodiles, head of the dissident group Estado de SATS.
In a statement Wednesday, Rubio called the embassy omissions "a slap in the face" to Cuba's democracy activists.
"Cuban dissidents are the legitimate representatives of the Cuban people and it is they who deserve America's red carpet treatment, not Castro regime officials," Rubio said.
The cautious approach is consistent with how Obama has handled the question of support for dissidents since he and Castro announced a prisoner swap in December and their intention to create a broader improvement in relations. The process has resulted in unilateral steps by Obama to ease the economic embargo on Cuba and last month's formal upgrading of both countries' interests sections into full-fledged embassies.
When senior diplomat Roberta Jacobson held talks in Havana in January, she met several government critics at the end of her historic trip but was restrained in her criticism of the government. Since then, American politicians have flooded Havana to see the sights, meet the country's new entrepreneurs and discuss possibly ending the U.S. embargo with leaders of the communist government.
Weissenstein reported from Havana.
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