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Cuba Detains Members of Prominent Dissident Group Ahead of Historic Visit by Obama

The US president made history when he touched down in Havana on Sunday afternoon, but Cuba's long history of silencing political dissidents looms large during the visit.
March 20, 2016, 8:40pm
Imagen por Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA

President Barack Obama made history when he touched down on Cuban soil at around 4:19pm local time on Sunday afternoon to meet with Raul Castro, the island nation's communist leader.

One issue that has loomed large ahead of the US president's historic visit is the Castro government's long history of silencing political dissidents, and it became even more pressing with reports that several members of the Ladies in White, a well-known group that represents the wives of imprisoned dissidents, were arrested while they were protesting in Havana on Sunday.

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The group usually gathers to protest at the same spot every Sunday after attending mass in the Cuban capital. Ahead of Obama's arrival, the Ladies in White joined with other anti-government groups to take advantage of the international media spotlight.

Related: Raul Castro Tells Obama He Must Lift Cuban Embargo — and Return Guantanamo

But when the 50 or so members of the Ladies in White arrived at their usual protest site, they were met by around 300 supporters of the Castro regime and groups of Cuban police who gathered for a counter-protest. Police were filmed detaining several members of the Ladies in White and bundling them into police vans.

Arrest of Ladies in White in Havana today ahead of Obama arrival, 'La calle es de Fidel!' crowd chants — Nick Miroff (@NickMiroff)March 20, 2016

Berta Solder, the group's leader, said she wanted to urge Obama not to be seduced by the country's leaders and instead pay close attention to the state of civil liberties in Cuba. "When you do business with a totalitarian government, you have to set conditions," Soler said.

Soler was reportedly among those detained by police on Sunday.

Obama is scheduled to meet with about a dozen political dissidents at the US Embassy in Havana. It's a move that probably won't be hugely popular with the Cuban government.

Ironically, some activists contend that preparations for the visit have actually been detrimental to human rights in Cuba, with reports from the island indicating that police have been determined to quash any hint of dissent or opposition.

Related: US and Cuba Strike Historic Deal to Allow Regular Commercial Flights

Elizardo Sanchez, director of Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, is a longtime opponent of the Cuban government under Castro. Sanchez tracks and keeps records of detentions, and told the New York Times that the government had ramped up its intimidation habits. In the first two weeks of March there were reportedly 526 detentions. Usually, a detention entails being held for at least a few hours.

"Right now what you see is preventive repression, so it does not occur to anyone to say anything to Obama while he is here," he said. Sanchez is also set to meet with Obama, along with dissidents Manuel Cuesta, Antonio Rodiles, Dagoberto Valdés, and José Daniel Ferrer, as well as prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez.

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Angel Moya, a former political prisoner, told Town Hall that "this was not the time for the president to visit Cuba."

"He said he would only come when there were improvements on human rights," Moya said. "In practice, the Cuban government is oppressing [us] more."

Related: US Agribusiness Is Seeing Green in Cuba

The two-day visit will be the first time a US president has been in Cuba since Calvin Coolidge's visit in 1928. The meeting is a big step in the thawing of relations between the two Cold War foes, but both sides are proceeding with trepidation.

The United States has been a vocal critic of human rights in Cuba, and while Obama has said he will raise the issue of human rights with the Cuban leader during his visit, Havana has insisted that discussing domestic politics are a no-go.

Televisión oficial anuncia programa especial por llegada de — Yoani Sánchez (@yoanisanchez)March 20, 2016

Other issues slated for discussion are the US economic embargo that remains in place and can only be lifted through a vote by Congress. Havana is also unhappy that the US continues to occupy and house political prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. How the current regime feels about the visit was perhaps captured in the state newspaper's chosen headline on the day of Obama's arrival. Instead of featuring the US president's visit as the main story, the Sunday paper focused on a meeting between Castro and longtime Communist ally, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which took place on Saturday.

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen