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Critics Urge Obama To Focus On Human Rights In Historic Cuba Trip


President Obama is preparing for an historic visit to Cuba this weekend. Just a few months ago, he told Yahoo! News he would only go if the conditions were right.


BARACK OBAMA: 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'd love to use a visit as a way of highlighting that progress.

MCEVERS: By going now though, some critics say the president is crossing his own redline. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, is a supporter of President Obama's approach to Cuba. He's also an outspoken human rights advocate.


BEN CARDIN: Cuba has deep problems, deep problems. It's a repressive communist regime that has a horrible record on human rights. And we have to deal with that openly.

KELEMEN: Cardin says he did when he visited Cuba, and he's expecting President Obama to do the same.


CARDIN: One thing I think is clear, Cuba's going to change. Cuba - the people of Cuba are going to demand change. The Castros are not going to be there much longer. There's going to be new leadership in Cuba.

KELEMEN: The question is how to bring about this change. One Cuba expert who has advised the White House is Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America. He says change will come by engaging rather than isolating Cuba. And, he says, the U.S. should reach out to a broad spectrum of Cubans, not just well-known dissidents.


GEOFF THALE: It's people in the religious community in Cuba. It's people in the academic community in Cuba. It's even people inside the Cuban government and Cuban Communist Party. And if we continue to think of Cuban civil society as a narrow group of people, we will not engage or encourage the broad sort of currents of people in the society who want to see change.

KELEMEN: That's all fine, says Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch. But he says Obama really needs to support dissidents. While Cuba is holding fewer political prisoners these days, it routinely rounds up its opponents, including more than 100 when Pope Francis visited the island.

DANIEL WILKINSON: This is a form of constant harassment, intimidation that really takes its toll on people who are trying to exercise basic rights to protest or to attend political meetings or to meet with visitors like Pope Francis and other people coming from outside.

KELEMEN: And Wilkinson says, despite its promise to President Obama, Cuba has not allowed in international human rights monitors. What's more, he says, many repressive laws remain on the books.

WILKINSON: I mean, we're talking about laws like, a dangerousness law, which is the most Orwellian them of them all, which basically allows the government to try and convict people, not for having committed a crime but for having a propensity, or predilection, to commit a crime in the future.

KELEMEN: And that's why Wilkinson says President Obama must be clear and specific as he raises U.S. concerns. According to White House officials, the president will address this in a public speech Tuesday, but will also make clear he's not speaking as the leader of a hostile nation bent on regime change. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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