Obama in Cuba; police break up protest hours before his arrival

US officials say President Barack Obama is in Cuba to encourage reforms that have already begun.


HAVANA, Cuba, Monday March 21, 2016 – American president Barack Obama is in Cuba for a historic visit that United States officials say is not about making demands but to encourage reforms.

But just hours before he touched down in Havana yesterday evening to small but cheering crowds, becoming the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Cuban police forcibly broke up a pro-democracy demonstration and arrested several dozen activists in the capital.

The Guardian reports that the protesters, drawn from the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and other opposition groups, were bundled into buses and police vans after a shouting match with pro-Castro supporters during their usual Sunday demonstration near the Santa Rita church.

“My son and his wife are in jail now. They all are. The police were very violent,” Glavys Fernández, the mother of leading opposition figure Antonio Rodiles, told the Guardian. “It’s the same every week. The oppression is very high.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the situation for civil rights activists has not improved since the rapprochement began between presidents Obama and Raúl Castro in December 2014. They noted that during Pope Francis’s visit to Cuba last September, police detained between 100 and 150 dissidents.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported more than 8,500 cases of arbitrary detention last year, and more than 2,500 in the first two months of 2016.

Yesterday, Rodiles, who helped form the Todos Marchamos (“We all march”) campaign, predicted what was to come as he addressed journalists before the protest.

“I have been arrested more than 50 times in the past year,” he said. “The police have broken my nose and my eardrum. There are many of them surrounding us again today. But we want to send a clear message to Obama. We need to show the reality we are living in.”

The activist argued that Obama should stress political freedom and insist that the government in Havana ratify the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights.

“Raúl Castro has said he will move aside in 2018 and this has created the expectation of elections. But the real transfer is taking place right now so by the time Castro steps down, power will have already switched,” he said.

“How can there be a proper referendum without freedom of expression, without access to a free TV and a free press? They will never allow me to go on television and debate the issues.”

Rodiles’ fellow protesters carried banners, proclaiming: “Obama’s trip to Cuba isn’t for fun. No to violations of human rights.” Others chanted, “Obama, we have a dream: a Cuba without Castros.”

Democracy activists in the communist Caribbean country are pushing for a range of reforms, including free elections, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and an end to repression of activists. They want President Obama to lobby on their behalf.

US officials say the president, who will meet civil rights activists and give a speech tomorrow, is in Cuba to encourage reforms that have already begun, particularly in the area of economic liberalisation. But they say he will talk candidly about human rights and the need for participation in decision making.

“The main message of his speech will be that Cuba’s future is for the Cuban people to decide. The goal is not to foster regime change,” said a state department official. “President Obama wants to show that the challenges Cubans face are not the result of US policy.”

No political conditions have been set for the visit and there is no expectation of a quid pro quo exchange from the Cubans for the US decision last week to relax currency and travel restrictions. Change is said to be more likely to come about at next month’s Communist Party Congress, if at all.

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