(CNSNews.com) – President Obama landed in Cuba on Sunday afternoon, hours after dozens of dissidents from the Ladies in White movement were detained during a post-Mass, pro-democracy march, in what has become a weekly ritual of protest and arrest over almost a year.
“Obama, traveling to Cuba isn’t fun,” read a banner carried by the demonstrators. “No to human rights violations.”
Any hopes that this week’s demonstration, on the eve of Obama’s arrival, would be tolerated were quickly put to rest, as police handcuffed and bussed away dozens of the protesting women, and a handful of men. Ladies in White was established more than a decade ago by wives and relatives of political prisoners.
“¿Que bolá Cuba? [What’s up, Cuba?],” Obama tweeted after Air Force One landed at Jose Marti International Airport near Havana. “Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.”
Obama’s decision to engage the communist-ruled Caribbean nation, restore diplomatic relations, ease travel and trade restrictions and now become the first sitting U.S. president to visit in almost 90 years, has drawn mixed responses in both countries.
Many share the administration’s view that a new policy was called for after decades of stagnation and mutual suspicion, and that economic opening up will help bring about political reforms.
“For far too long, U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have insisted that U.S. measures, like ending the travel ban or easing the trade embargo, must be met by moves by the Cuban government to improve the human rights condition of the citizenry,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) – a strong supporter of Obama’s decision – said on the Senate floor earlier this month.
“I understand this instinct, but I would submit that ending the travel ban and easing the trade embargo, even when done unilaterally, leads to better human rights conditions in Cuba,” added Flake, who is part of the large delegation accompanying the president.
Many others fear that Cubans’ desire for democracy and respect for fundamental human rights will take a back seat to commercial interests.
Around the time Obama landed, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, who is of Cuban descent, tweeted: “I have a word for the people of Cuba who will witness the gaudy spectacle in Havana: America has not forgotten you.”
The tweet linked to a Politico op-ed in which Cruz recalled that Obama two months ago said he would only travel to Cuba “if, in fact, I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans.”
“I have news, Mr. President,” Cruz said. “No progress has taken place. Cuba is going backward.”
He wrote that the freedom Cubans years for can come – “but it cannot happen by enriching and empowering the dictatorship, which they export terrorism throughout Latin America.”
The degree to which Obama tackles human rights concerns during his three-day visit remains will be closely watched.
The administration says it will be a priority, but a planned human rights-focused visit by Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of the president’s trip was canceled, amid disagreements over who he would be able to meet with. (The State Department blamed “scheduling issues.”)
The White House has not released a list of dissidents with whom Obama will meet, although U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in a conference call on Wednesday they “will represent a diverse and important set of voices in Cuba – prominent dissidents, people who have made enormous sacrifices.”
He also said Obama would address human rights “in all of his public comments,” including in a speech the president is scheduled to deliver on Tuesday morning, before he flies out to Buenos Aires.
Rhodes stressed Obama would make clear that political change is “up to the Cuban people” and that “the United States is not a hostile nation seeking to promote regime change.”
“The difference here is that in the past, because of certain U.S. policies, the message that was delivered in that regard either overtly or implicitly suggested that the U.S. was seeking to pursue regime change; that the U.S. was seeking to essentially overturn the government in Cuba; or that the U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba,” he said.
The Castro regime is famously sensitive to U.S. criticism of its human rights record – as seen most recently when its diplomats lashed out at Washington during a U.N. Human Rights Council session in Geneva last week.
One representative, Pablo Berti, advised the U.S. government to improve human rights at home, and declared, “As President [Raul] Castro said, we will not renounce our ideas or independence or social justice, nor will we set aside any of our principles. We will not give a single millimeter in the defense of national sovereignty. We will not relent to pressure in our domestic matters.”
During the same session Cuba, joined by allies from some of the world’s most repressive states, sought to silence a prominent Cuban dissident from speaking at the HRC, characterizing her and the non-governmental organization she represented as lackeys of the U.S.