Top US official meets dissidents in Cuba

US assistant secretary of state Roberta Jacobson (left) speaking with Cuban dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer in Havana on Jan 23, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US assistant secretary of state Roberta Jacobson (left) speaking with Cuban dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer in Havana on Jan 23, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

HAVANA (AFP) - The highest-ranking US official to visit Cuba in 35 years met with leading dissidents on Friday, but one prominent opposition figure stayed out amid differences over Washington's rapprochement with Havana.

The Cuban government criticised the meeting between Ms Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's top official for Latin America, and regime critics but indicated that it would not derail negotiations to normalise ties.

BMs erta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White group of spouses of political prisoners, turned down the invitation to attend the breakfast meeting over eggs and bacon with Ms Jacobson.

"My decision was due to there not being a balance in terms of the diversity of opinion of the participants," Ms Soler told AFP.

"If a diversity of opinions is sought, if differences are respected, then it should be balanced."

Some of the seven dissidents who attended the meeting under crystal chandeliers at the lavish mansion of the head of the US Interests Section in Havana played down the differences.

"This question of whether or not we welcome this dialogue between the US and Cuban government is secondary," Mr 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.

He said they conveyed to Ms Jacobson the "importance of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and people."

Cuba's dissident community has had mixed feelings about US President Barack Obama's December agreement with Cuban leader Raul Castro to seek normal ties.

Some have praised the move, while others worry too much was conceded to the communist regime without getting much in return.

Ms Jacobson made a point of meeting with the dissidents the day after leading the highest-level US talks in 35 years with Cuban officials to discuss reopening embassies in their respective capitals - a key step in normalising ties after more than 50 years of hostile relations.

"I had the opportunity to discuss with some civil society activists their point of view, listen well to their discrepancies or support for the new policy," Ms Jacobson said.

"It was very important for me to listen to their perspectives and how we can support civil society in the future," she told reporters, without addressing Ms Soler's absence.

Cuba's chief negotiator, Ms Josefina Vidal, said the diplomatic talks will continue despite Ms Jacobson's meeting with government critics.

"This small group of people doesn't represent Cuban society, don't represent the interests of the Cuban people. So that's a big difference with the United States government," Ms Vidal told the US news network MSNBC.

'TOTALITARIAN REGIME'

Ms Jacobson said Washington would continue to speak directly with the Cuban government about its concerns over human rights.

"The motive of this process... is really to not only reestablish diplomatic relations, but also try to empower the Cuban people with the goal of having a free and democratic country so close to the United States," she said.

Mr Elizardo Sanchez, head of the formally banned but tolerated Cuban National Human Rights Commission, said the talks with Ms Jacobson were "very cordial, a very human coming together. We are pleased with this meeting."

Besides Mr Ferrer and Mr Sanchez, participants included Ms Martha Beatriz Roque, Ms Miriam Leiva, Mr Hector Maseda, Mr Antonio Gonzalez-Rodiles and Mr Guillermo Farinas.

Mr Sanchez said he was "satisfied" with the US decision to seek normal ties but said he was not expecting "any miracles in the short term".

"Hopefully, I am wrong but the situation will continue to be very unfavourable due to the drastically intransigent position of the totalitarian regime of the Castro brothers, which is what needs to change," he said.

Ms Jacobson was due to visit Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega later Friday.

Pope Francis played a central role in mediating the secret negotiations that led to the December announcement.

'JUST A FIRST STEP'

Ms Jacobson and Ms Vidal led historic negotiations on Thursday aimed at moving toward more normal relations.

While neither side announced dates for the reopening of embassies, they pledged to meet again to work toward that goal.

Both nations are currently represented by "interests sections" in each capital, which means the work of diplomats is restricted.

"(Thursday's talks) marked an important step forward for the relationship between the United States and Cuba. But it was just a first step," Ms Jacobson said.