“These talks are not a major breakthrough,” said Geoff Thale, a program director at the Washington Institute on Latin America. “But they are one more signal that there is at least a modest thaw in the relationship, a new willingness to talk.”
But even those modest steps have been criticized by some U.S. lawmakers, most prominently Cuban-American Republicans who represent districts in Florida heavy with anti-Castro exiles.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lethinen, Florida Republican, told The Washington Times on Thursday that she and other Cuban-American lawmakers had met with several of the democracy activists and said the meetings reinforced her skepticism about the changes in Cuba and her support for the economic embargo.
“This year, many pro-democracy advocates have come to D.C. to shed light on the charade of the so-called reforms that are nonexistent in Cuba. Many Cuban-American members of Congress, including me, had the opportunity to meet with island human rights activists, such as Yoani Sanchez, Berta Soler, Guillermo Farinas, Rosa Maria Paya, Antonio Rodiles, and others,” said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, who also criticized the Obama administration’s mail and migration talks when they were announced in mid-June.
“During our meeting with Farinas, my colleagues Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Albio Sires and I had the opportunity to discuss the ongoing human rights violations continuing to occur in Cuba perpetrated by the Castro regime and the need to enforce the embargo until Cuba becomes a free and democratic society,” she said.
A source told The Washington Times that Rep. Joe Garcia, Florida Democrat and a former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, also met with Mr. Farinas during his visit to the Hill last week.
Mr. Garcia’s office did not respond to a Washington Times request for confirmation of the meeting or a comment on it.
Whether that modest thaw gets helped — or hindered — by the ongoing visits being made by Cuban dissidents to Washington is a subject of growing speculation.
“What’s interesting about the dissidents is that they all share a strong critique of the Cuban government, but have a wide range of views about what the U.S. government ought to do, and about the embargo,” said Mr. Thale. “I think it’s useful for the State Department to hear this range of views, and to take the measure of the dissident community.”
The State Department declined to specify what was discussed during recent meetings at Foggy Bottom with such dissidents as Yoani Maria Sanchez, a Cuban blogger internationally known for her portrayals of life in Cuba under the Castro government. Among the others in the discussions was Berta Soler Fernandez, the current leaders of the “Ladies in White,” an outspoken group of wives of political prisoners in Cuba.
“We still continue to be concerned by the Cuban government’s repeated use of detention and violence against critics and disruptions of peaceful assembly,” said William Ostick, a spokesman for the department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. “We continue to call on the Cuban government to end the practice of arbitrary and extrajudicial detentions.”
One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said that the Castro government has continued to block the travel of some dissidents to Washington. For instance, Mrs. Soler Fernandez’s husband — construction worker and democracy activist Luis Moya Acosta — has “not been allowed to travel,” the official said.
But, the official added, “the fact of the matter is that Cuba’s lifting of the exit-visa restriction has allowed a certain number of these people to travel and be able to communicate with broader civil society and think tanks and governments.”
Mr. Farinas was accompanied by Cuban human rights campaigner Elizardo Sanchez in meeting with Michael G. Kozak, the acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor on June 27.
Mr. Farinas spoke the same day on Capitol Hill at the Florida House Foundation, a nonprofit focused on Florida-related issues, where he responded to a question about how Cuba’s opposition community views the existing U.S. embargo on trade with the island.