(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry and his department pushed back Wednesday on claims that the administration has excluded dissidents from Friday’s historic opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana to avoid upsetting the Castro regime, attributing the decision to a lack of space and the fact the flag-raising is a “government-to-government” event.
Kerry and other officials pointed out that dissidents, considered traitors by the regime, would be among guests invited to a second function later in the day, at the chief of mission’s residence.
“I’m going to meet with dissidents,” Kerry said in an interview with Telemundo. “They will come to the mission. I’ll have a chance to sit down with them at the mission. There will be a broad cross-section of Cuban society that will be invited to that event at the mission.”
“What they’re not invited to, quite notably, is the raising of the flag at the embassy itself because that is a government-to-government moment with very limited space, by the way, which is why we are having the reception later in the day at which we can have a cross-section of civil society, including some dissidents.”
Kerry added that he also planned a stroll in Old Havana during the day. “I look forward to meeting whoever I meet, and listening to them.”
The Associated Press, citing unnamed U.S. officials involved in the planning, reported earlier that officials settled on a compromise: To avoid risking a boycott by Cuban officials, no dissidents would be invited to the embassy event, even though excluding them would invite “fierce criticism from opponents of Obama’s new policy.”
“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,” AP said.
A senior State Department official, in a background briefing on Kerry’s visit, rejected any notion that the communist government was involved in deciding who would attend the flag-raising ceremony.
“The Cubans have no say over the invitations to our event, so I really want to be clear on that,” the official said. “Just as we had no say in who they invited to their opening of their embassy [in Washington on July 20], neither did they have any say in who was invited to our opening, and that’s as it should be.”
The senior State Department official also pointed to the limited space at the embassy while acknowledging that those invited to it would include “some U.S. and Cuban private citizens.”
“The opening ceremony, which is the flag-raising ceremony at the embassy, is principally a government-to-government event. It’ll include officials from the Cuban government, a range of U.S. government agencies, as well as members of Congress,” the official said.
“There will be some U.S. and Cuban private citizens there, but it is primarily a government-to-government event, and it is extremely constrained in space.”
Responding to the AP report, Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the decision not to invite dissidents to the embassy event “a new low for President Obama and a slap in the face by this administration to Cuba’s courageous 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,” he said.
Also criticizing the move was former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who tweeted: “Insulting to the cause of freedom and democracy that Obama has not invited Cuban dissidents to U.S. embassy opening.”
Rubio and Bush are both running for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination.