(CNSNews.com) – President Obama on Tuesday met with 13 Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and they gave him the names of political prisoners whose existence Cuban President Raul Castro denied a day earlier.
According to the Voice of America, one of those meeting with Obama, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation president Elizardo Sánchez, gave Obama a list of 89 political prisoners.
Earlier another opposition group, the Cuban Democratic Directorate, published what it called a “partial list” of 51 prisoners who it said were serving lengthy prison terms for political reasons.
It said only the regime knows the true number, and challenged it to allow the International Red Cross to visit Cuban prisons to establish a comprehensive list, something which the organization said “the Castro dictatorship has refused to allow since 1989.”
At a joint press appearance with Obama on Monday, a reporter asked Castro why his government does not release political prisoners.
“What political prisoners?” Castro retorted. “Give me a name or names. After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners. And if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends.”
In brief remarks to the press before holding the behind-closed-doors meeting with the activists and dissidents, Obama praised their courage, noting that some of them have been arrested, “some in the past and some very recently.”
“As I’ve said consistently, part of our policy with respect to engagement with Cuba is not simply me meeting with President Castro or government-to-government relations,” he said. “Much of this is a matter of us being able to hear directly from the Cuban people and making sure that they have a voice, and making sure that their concerns and their ideas are helping to shape U.S. policies.”
Obama said the U.S. continues to have “deep differences” with the Cuban government in the area of human rights and democracy.
“My hope is that by listening and hearing from them that we can continue to refine our policy in such a way that ultimately the Cuban people are able to live freely and prosperously.”
Among those invited to meet with Obama was Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White movement, whose weekly demonstrations after Sunday Mass routinely end in arrests – most recently just hours before Obama landed in Havana.
Apart from long-term political prisoners, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported more than 8,500 cases of arbitrary detention in 2015, and more than 2,500 in the first two months of 2016 alone.
Cuba’s state media, including the Communist Party organ Granma, did not report on Obama’s meeting with the dissidents.
Granma did, however, carry in full the text of Obama’s speech earlier Tuesday at Havana’s Grand Theater. In that speech Obama argued that equality under the law, the right to criticize the government, to protest peacefully, to practice faith peacefully and publicly, and to choose governments in free and democratic elections, are universal – “the rights of the American people, the Cuban people, and people around the world.”