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Cuban Dissidents To Obama: Press Harder For Improved Human Rights


All right, President Obama made history last night. He took his family out for an evening stroll and dinner in Havana. He's the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in Cuba in nearly 90 years. He's visiting just over a year after announcing his intention to normalize ties with the island's communist regime, a move critics say comes too soon given the Castro government's human rights record. Tomorrow, President Obama meets with Cuban dissidents who want to him to press harder for concessions. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Havana.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: As they do every Sunday, more than 50 women all dressed in white march silently down Havana's 5th Avenue. Just hours before President Obama would land in the country, the Ladies in White group, joined by a dozen men, broke into anti-government slogans.



KAHN: Yes to Cuba, no to Castro. Also on cue, counter-protesters launched into pro-government chants as the two groups clashed.


KAHN: We do as Fidel says, yelled a couple hundred pro-Castro protesters backing up security forces as they hauled the Ladies in White into waiting police buses, pro- and anti-government signs tussled.


KAHN: They've rounded up all the women, and now the buses are taking off. It was quite a chaotic scene.


KAHN: And the buses are leaving.

Before that final scuffle and her arrest, Berta Soler, the group's strident leader, said now was not the right time for Obama to come to Cuba. She said President Obama has conceded too much.

BERTA SOLER: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "When you deal with a totalitarian government, it's you who should be the one making the demands," says Soler. Most of the Ladies in White were detained a few hours then released. Soler is scheduled to meet with Obama tomorrow when he talks with opposition leaders. Such short-term detentions are the new normal for Cuba's dissidents says Elizardo Sanchez, an anti-government activist who tallies political detentions.

ELIZARDO SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The situation has gotten worse in the past year," he says. "Not only have 20 more political prisoners been given lengthy jail sentences, bringing the current number up to 80." He says short-term detentions are on the rise.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Having a lot of political prisoners is not good for any government's image," says Sanchez. "That's why the regimes switched to quick detentions and harassment which don't garner as much international scorn," he says.

Not all dissidents say they are under more pressure, and many are excited about Obama's visit.

JORGE OLIVEIRA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "President Obama is much more popular here these days then Raul Castro," says Jorge Oliveira, a poet and writer critical of the government. He says it will be hard for Castro to keep demonizing the U.S. after Obama has been so warmly welcomed here. Activists in the religious, arts and gay communities have seen increasing opportunities to speak out and criticize. Oliveira says the harshest repression falls on dissidents demonstrating in the streets.

OLIVEIRA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They are trying to pressure the government with marches, something the regime just won't tolerate," he says. Oliveira, one of 75 dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro during the so-called Black Spring of 2003, was just told he could take one trip out of the country. He's planning to accept a Harvard fellowship he was forced to turn down 7 years ago. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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