HAVANA (AFP) – The highest-ranking US official to visit Cuba in three decades met with leading dissidents on Friday, but one prominent opposition figure stayed out amid differences over Washington’s rapprochement with Havana.
Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s top official for Latin America, met with seven government critics under crystal chandeliers at the lavish mansion of the head of the US Interests Section in Havana.
The meeting came a day after Jacobson attended landmark talks with Cuban officials, in which the Cold War rivals agreed to meet again in their bid to reopen mutual embassies and normalise ties that broke in 1961.
Jacobson told reporters the get-together with dissidents allowed her to “listen well to their discrepancies or support for the new policy.”
But Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White group of spouses of political prisoners, turned down the invitation to attend the breakfast meeting with Jacobson.
“It was very important for me to listen to their perspectives and how we can support civil society in the future,” she said, without addressing Soler’s absence.
The Cuban government criticised the gathering but indicated that the talks to normalise ties “will continue.”
“This small group of people don’t represent Cuban society, don’t represent the interests of the Cuban people,” Cuba’s chief negotiator Josefina Vidal told US television network MSNBC.
“So that’s a big difference with the United States government.”
Soler said she chose to skip the meeting because there participants did not reflect diverse opinions.
“If a diversity of opinions is sought, if differences are respected, then it should be balanced,” Soler told AFP.
Some of the dissidents who met Jacobson played down the differences.
“This question of whether or not we welcome this dialogue between the US and Cuban government is secondary,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of a dissident group in western Cuba, told reporters.
“What’s important is that we remain united in that freedom, democracy and respect of human rights are the fundamental issues in this case.”
He said they conveyed to Jacobson the “importance of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and people.”
Cuba’s dissident community has been divided over US President Barack Obama’s December agreement with Cuban leader Raul Castro to seek normal ties.