The State Department has quietly been holding talks with a small but diverse cadre of Cuban natives in Washington — including democracy activists offering insider views of the communist island's politics — that analysts say could send shock waves through the long-standing debate about what a future U.S. policy toward Cuba should look like.
Obama administration officials are mum on the closed-door meetings, including one held at Foggy Bottom last week with renowned Cuban hunger-striker Guillermo Farinas, who came bearing a somewhat paradoxical message: Most pro-democracy activists now operating in Cuba, which has been a Communist dictatorship and a U.S. enemy for more than a half-century, oppose lifting the long-standing U.S. embargo on trade with their nation.
Such realities may not surprise close Cuba watchers, who say U.S. officials have known for years that ending the embargo might unleash a flow of badly needed foreign cash to the government of President Raul Castro — enhancing its ability to crush the island's fragile pro-democracy movement.
But activists like Mr. Farinas are now being allowed to inject their views directly into the heart of Washington's foreign policy establishment, ironically because he and other dissidents have been allowed to take advantage of January's historic lifting by the Castro government of a decades-old ban on travel abroad.
"The activists are feeling with their blood and bones the repression of the Cuban security apparatus," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington.
U.S. policymakers "now get to actually see it and feel it firsthand from the protagonists themselves," he said. "That's extraordinary and it's very helpful."
The impact such visits are having on the Obama administration, however, is a subject of debate.
Mr. Farinas' visit occurred in the shadow of headlines from a landmark meeting last month between U.S. and Cuban officials, who talked about possibly re-establishing direct mail service between the two nations. The two nations plan to meet July 17 to talk about regulating migration.
Together, the negotiations have some in Washington wondering whether the Obama administration is looking to break the stalemate that has defined U.S. relations with Havana since Cuban leader Fidel Castro agreed to house Soviet ballistic missiles in 1961.
Mr. Castro, 86, stepped down in 2008, and the top post is now held by his 82-year-old brother, who has allowed such incremental reforms as the easing of the ban on his citizens' travel. Raul Castro has said that he will step down when his five-year term ends in 2018.
But Cuba remains on Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism, and sources close to the Obama administration told The Washington Times that ongoing frustration with Havana's detention of American Alan Gross is likely to prevent the kind of wide-scale redefinition of policy some thought would come during Mr. Obama's presidency.
Washington wants the release of Mr. Gross, a subcontractor who was arrested in 2009 while working for a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program. Cuban authorities accused him of illegally delivering satellite phones to individuals in the nation's Jewish community and gave him a 15-year prison sentence.
His detention served only to amplify back-channel tensions with Havana. The Castro government has for its part long complained about U.S. treatment of the "Cuban Five" — a group of Cuban intelligence officers convicted in Miami in 2001 of conspiracy to spy on U.S. military installations, Cuban exiles and anti-Castro politicians.
The recent move toward re-establishing direct mail with the U.S. and the upcoming talks on migration might seem insignificant within the context of such tensions.
"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.
"The overwhelming majority of dissidents on the island do not support the lifting of the embargo," he said, according to Mr. Claver-Carone, who posted the remark on a blog he runs in addition to his work as head of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.
According to the blog, Mr. Farinas added that "there are those who do support [the embargo's] lifting, and we respect their criteria, but they are mostly intellectuals who do not have a membership base behind them."
He and Mr. Sanchez also participated in a recorded conversation with foreign policy experts at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington.
"It's important for Americans to see that there's dissent within the island," said Carl Meacham, who heads the center's Americas Program. "It's not just something that members of Congress or folks that are living in Florida are talking about."
Those who speak out during the visits "might go back to Cuba and get arrested, but I think that's what happens when you're trying to improve the conditions," he added. "These people are great because they know that there's a consequence for their criticism of the Cuban government and they love their country so much that they're willing to pay that consequence."
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