Cubans rights groups fear Democratic world legitimizing Castros

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( – President Obama’s outreach to communist-ruled Cuba risks “legitimizing the deeply entrenched Cuban regime,” Cuban human rights and opposition groups warned Wednesday, days before Obama is scheduled to become the first sitting president to visit the island nation in almost 90 years.

“We would never imagine that the democratic world would legitimize the Castros,” the Forum for Rights and Freedoms and the Resistance Assembly wrote in a letter to Obama.

“These individuals have destroyed the well-being of our nation. From firing squads and political assassinations to political imprisonment, thousands of Cubans inside and outside the island have had their lives taken by the regime because of their advocacy of a Free Cuba.”

The Forum for Rights and Freedoms, founded after Obama in December 2014 announced the U.S. will restore diplomatic ties with Havana, comprises more than a dozen opposition groups calling for changes including the release of all political prisoners and a general amnesty.

The Resistance Assembly, founded in 2009 in Florida, comprises scores of Cuban and Cuban-American exiled organizations opposed to the Castro regime.

The signatories said that since Obama announced a policy shift on Cuba, oppression has increased.

“The friendly gestures, formal recognition and official negotiations bestowed on the Castros by the United States government have actually yielded a significant increase in violence against the opposition, especially against women activists,” the letter said. “It is no wonder then, why a record number of Cubans are currently fleeing the island.”

The groups voiced concern that a focus on business openings with Cuba may trump human rights.

“If the quest for commerce continues to be placed above the support of the pro-democracy and civil rights movement in Cuba, the legacy left by your administration will be one where the suffering of the Cuban people was prolonged,” they told Obama. “Yet, your best contribution would be to act as a facilitator of a true democratic transition in Cuba.”

The White House has yet to announce the full delegation that will accompany Obama on the May 21-22 visit, although House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats, as well as several senators – including Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a strong supporter of Obama’s outreach to Cuba – will reportedly go along.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest stressed earlier this month that Obama will meet with “some political dissidents.”

“The guest list for that meeting will be determined solely by the White House,” he said. “There will not be any input from the Cuban government about the list of people who attend that meeting.”

The situation wasn’t so clear cut when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Havana last summer to attend the raising of the U.S. flag over the reopened embassy.

On that occasion leading dissidents who were not invited to the flag-raisingrefused to meet with him at a separate private reception, accusing him of bowing under pressure from the regime.

Kerry said there was “limited space” at the official function. He did meet with other activists at the private event.

Kerry planned a human rights-focused visit Cuba early this month in advance of Obama’s trip, but canceled abruptly. Spokesman John Kirby on March 4 blamed “scheduling issues” and did not confirm or deny when asked about reports that there had also been differences over human rights.

“There’s no question that we continue to have concerns about the human rights issue in Cuba, and we’ve been very candid and frank about that, publicly and privately,” Kirby said.

Kerry will accompany the president next week.

‘We will not relent to pressure’

Cuba’s sensitivity to American criticism was evident again at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, when its delegate in a fiery statement slammed the United States – and advised it that the regime will not give in to U.S. pressure to change.

“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,” said Pablo Berti. “We will not give a single millimeter in the defense of national sovereignty. We will not relent to pressure in our domestic matters.”

Berti accused the U.S. delegate at the HRC, who had earlier called on Cuba to end arbitrary short-term detentions, respect freedom of expression and release all political prisoners – of spreading falsehoods.

“Again, the representative of the United States spews before this body baseless accusations against Cuba,” he said.

The U.S. should instead respond to human rights violations “committed daily” at home, Berti continued.

He cited racial discrimination, “police brutality” – especially against African-Americans or Latinos – violations of international humanitarian law, military operations against other countries, “torture” at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and what he called the “genocidal” trade embargo.

Berti also demanded that the U.S. stop “its attempts to drum up internal and domestic political opposition paid for by the taxpayers.”

At the same session, Cuba and numerous other countries with poor human rights records, including Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and China, tried to prevent a Cuban dissident from speaking on behalf of a U.S.-based  non-governmental organization, Freedom House, which Berti charged was a front for CIA subversion.

— Written by Patrick Goodenough