United States Cuba Policy & Business Blog

Thursday, October 1, 2009

US Diplomat Met with Cuban Dissidents in Havana

By PAUL HAVEN (AP) – 1 hour ago Sept. 30, 2009
HAVANA — A senior U.S.. diplomat who traveled to Havana for the highest-level talks with Cuban officials in decades also met with opposition activists to discuss their political views, three dissidents and a State Department official said Wednesday.
Bisa Williams, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with 15 prominent dissidents during a Sept. 21 lunch at the U.S. Interests Section, America's diplomatic mission in Cuba, three of them told The Associated Press. Elizardo Sanchez, Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca all have spent time in jail for their political views.
Williams asked the dissidents about U.S.-Cuba relations, and pressed for details of their lives in a country with one political party and a history of intolerance toward dissent, they said.
"She asked about popular support for the opposition," Roque said in a telephone interview. "I explained to her that such support was difficult because those who are part of the opposition are sent to jail."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley later confirmed in Washington that Williams met with "human rights advocates, members of civil society (and) dissidents, talking about a variety of issues both economic and political."
Williams was in Havana for Sept. 17 talks on re-establishing direct mail service between the United States and Cuba, but stayed on for a total of six days for discussion with Cuban officials and others. The unannounced extension of her visit was first reported Tuesday by AP.
Williams met with Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez, visited a region of western Cuba affected by hurricanes, toured an agriculture facility and met with American medical students who are studying on the island.
Crowley described Williams' discussions with the Cuban government as "mechanical meetings on very specific issues" and "real nuts-and-bolts working-level things" such as answering diplomatic notes and the operation of the U.S. Interests Section.
"I wouldn't say it changes anything in terms of our relationship with Cuba," he said. "But, obviously, it's consistent with the president's efforts to increase the free flow of information and the interaction between the United States and the Cuban people."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs added: "We have long stated that we would ... have talks that were in mutual interest to each side, and that's what these are."
Despite the official assurances that Williams stuck to a narrow agenda, news of her discussions prompted criticism among some Cuban exiles in South Florida. On Wednesday, three Cuban-born Republican congressmen from Florida known for their staunch anti-Castro views expressed concern and requested an immediate briefing from the State Department.
"If reports are accurate, Ms. Williams' scheduled visit to Cuba went far beyond its stated purpose and turned into a quasi-summit with officials of the Cuban regime," U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote in a joint statement. "We are concerned that Ms. Williams' visit may have elevated diplomatic contacts with the regime to unwarranted levels."
Washington cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, and Williams' trip marked the most direct contact the two sides have publicly acknowledged in at least a generation.
Periodic talks between the U.S. and Cuba were limited to migration issues from 1994 until they were canceled under President George W. Bush in 2003.
The last political discussions between the two countries were held in March 1982, when the Reagan administration sent former ambassador Vernon Walters to Havana for talks with Fidel Castro that proved largely fruitless.
In 1975, Lawrence Eagleburger, then an aide to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, met with a top-ranking emissary of Fidel Castro at a coffee shop at New York's Laguardia Airport. That led to a series of secret meetings that produced no breakthroughs.
In addition to Sanchez, Roque and Roca, dissidents meeting with Williams included Rene Gomez Manzano and Felix Bonne. Cuba's government tolerates no official opposition, and considers dissidents traitors who are working with Washington to undermine the communist system.
It is common for visiting European diplomats to meet with opposition leaders, but such discussions often anger the Cuban government. Williams' decision to take the meeting comes despite a growing level of confidence between Washington and Havana that has raised the prospect that relations could be on a track toward an eventual reconciliation.
"I believe that the meeting was consistent with Washington's policy of maintaining contact with the government, without cutting off civil society," Sanchez said.
Williams' trip apparently was not all work.
A Cuban official told AP on Wednesday that the U.S. diplomat also found time to join hundreds of thousands of Cubans at the Sept. 20 mega-concert by Colombian pop star Juanes in Havana's Revolution Plaza, and that she seemed to enjoy the show. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the visit publicly.
The concert was billed as nonpolitical and dedicated to peace, but was criticized by some in the Cuban-American exile community, who argued that the rocker was lending tacit support for the Cuban government simply by showing up.
U.S. officials had no comment.
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.