Just before Obama landed in Havana on Sunday to begin a historic visit to Cuba — the first presidential visit in nearly a century — Cuban authorities arrested more than 50 members of the Ladies in White, a Cuban human rights organization comprised of the wives of political dissidents jailed by the Castro regime.
An organization that has been overtly critical of the Castro regime’s suppression of dissent, the Ladies in White take to the streets in protest after attending mass on Sundays. They’re used to being arrested and detained for hours or days as a consequence.
And yet, some of them held out hope for a change on Sunday.
President Obama promised to bring up human rights in a letter to the Ladies in White earlier this month. “We take seriously the concerns you have raised,” he wrote in the letter. “I will raise these issues directly with President [Raul] Castro.”
Berta Soler, a founder of the group, said she hoped the protest on Sunday could proceed without arrests in an act of deference to Obama.
“For us, it’s very important that we do this so President Obama knows that there are women here fighting for the liberty of political prisoners,” Soler told USA Today. “And he needs to know that we are here being repressed simply for exercising our right to express ourselves and manifest in a non-violent way.”
Despite Obama’s visit — and the mass of international journalists awaiting Obama’s arrival — Cuban authorities rounded up Soler and the other Ladies in White and arrested them. Although Obama has called for human rights reforms to be imparted before lifting sanctions against the country, human rights activist have seen an increase in repression from the Castro regime.
There were more than 8,600 political arrests documented by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Cuba over the course of 2015. There was a sharp increase in such arrests since 2013. While the Cuban government released 53 political prisoners as part of the terms of an agreement with the United States, five of them have since been re-arrested.
“It is hard to speak of progress when they make these rearrests,” a senior State Department official told the Los Angeles Times, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have to keep pushing them on this.”
The extent to which Obama will be able to continue “pushing” those issues is an open question.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State of John Kerry canceled a tentative trip to Cuba over the very issue of which political dissidents Obama would be able to meet.
That decision highlighted tensions between the two countries, even as they have re-opened long-shuttered embassies and reached economic deals. While Castro has been open to those shifts, he has been unwilling to compromise on threats to what he called the “socialist nature of the revolution” and the political system that upholds it.
“The human-rights situation in Cuba hasn’t changed much since December 2014, when Obama and Castro announced an agreement to normalize diplomatic relations.” Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch wrote in an op-ed in the Miami Herald.
Even so, he said that the normalization of ties between the old Cold War adversaries creates an unprecedented opportunity to combat human rights abuses in Cuba.
“President Obama’s policy of engagement denies the Cuban government one of its main pretexts for repressive rule,” he wrote. “From now on, it will be harder for Castro to paint the victims of his government’s repression as agents of U.S. aggression. And that will make it easier for other countries in the region to stand up for human rights in Cuba.”
Castro said that he opposed "political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights” and mentioned areas where he thought the United States was failing. He mentioned the right to free universal healthcare and the detention of foreign nationals without charge at Guantanamo Bay.
"We will continue to stand up for basic principles that we believe in," Obama said in his statement. "America believes in democracy. We believe that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, are not just American values but universal values."
Before he delivered his remarks, Obama acknowledged “profound differences” with his Cuban counterpart over human rights issues.