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US diplomat met with Cuban dissidents in Havana

Posted on Wednesday, 09.30.09
US diplomat met with Cuban dissidents in Havana
By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer

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
told The Associated Press on 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, according to 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."

Asked about the meeting, U.S. Interests Section spokesperson Gloria
Berbena said only that Williams met with a "wide variety of
representatives of Cuban civil society" during her trip.

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
visit was first reported Tuesday by AP.

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 former 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.

State department officials said Williams met with Cuban Deputy Foreign
Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez, visited a region of western Cuba affected
by hurricanes, toured a Cuban agriculture facility and met with American
medical students who are studying on the island.

In addition to Sanchez, Roque and Roca, dissidents at the meeting
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.

US diplomat met with Cuban dissidents in Havana – World AP –
MiamiHerald.com (30 September 2009)
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/world/AP/story/1259638.html

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