HAVANA - Shortly before President Obama arrived in Cuba today, a human rights march turned into an ugly street confrontation - an incident that served to send Obama two opposing messages.
The President's historic visit to Havana this week is largely focused on the opening of economic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. But Cuba’s communist government and its pro-democracy dissidents are making it clear he can’t ignore the island’s political challenges.
Just hours before Obama landed, dissident groups held a weekly demonstration in Havana’s Miramar district. They urged the U.S. leader to address human rights more strongly in his speech here Tuesday.
“This is not the moment for Barack Obama to say that human rights are improving in Cuba,” said Berta Soler, head of the protest group known as Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White. “We are still met with police violence for speaking out.”
Pro-government activists were out in force nearby. They called the dissidents paid mercenaries for Cuban exiles in Miami.
“We have ample human rights in Cuba,” said Havana schoolteacher Vivian Trenard. “The U.S. President will see that reality when he’s here. We live in dignity.”
But then, per usual, government supporters met the dissidents on the street outside a church.
Cuban police moved in and arrested some 50 dissidents. They did not arrest pro-government protesters.
The Cuban government has insisted that normalized U.S.-Cuba relations will not mean a change in the island’s political system.
Obama will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro tomorrow, and then with dissidents on Tuesday.