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US diplomat met dissidents in Cuba after official talks

She sought details about life under one-party system

By Paul Haven
Associated Press / October 1, 2009

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HAVANA - A senior US diplomat who traveled to Havana for the highest-level talks with Cuban officials in decades also met with opposition activists to discuss their political views, three dissidents and a State Department official said yesterday.

Bisa Williams, US deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with 15 prominent dissidents during a Sept. 21 lunch at the US Interests Section, America’s diplomatic mission in Cuba, three of them said. Elizardo Sanchez, Martha Beatriz Roque, and Vladimiro Roca all have spent time in jail for their political views.

Williams asked the dissidents about US-Cuba relations and pressed for details of their lives in a country with one political party and a history of intolerance toward dissent, they said.

“She asked about popular support for the opposition,’’ Roque said. “I explained to her that such support was difficult because those who are part of the opposition are sent to jail.’’

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed Williams met with “human rights advocates, members of civil society, [and] dissidents, talking about a variety of issues, both economic and political.’’

Williams was in Havana for Sept. 17 talks on reestablishing direct mail service with the United States but stayed for six days for discussions with Cuban officials and others.

Williams met with Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, Dagoberto Rodriguez, visited a region affected by hurricanes, toured an agriculture facility, and met with American medical students who are studying on the island.

Crowley described Williams’ discussions with the Cuban government as “mechanical meetings on very specific issues’’ and “real nuts-and-bolts working-level things,’’ such as answering diplomatic notes and the operation of the US Interests Section.

“I wouldn’t say it changes anything in terms of our relationship with Cuba,’’ he said. “But, obviously, it’s consistent with the president’s efforts to increase the free flow of information and the interaction between the United States and the Cuban people.’’

Washington cut off diplomatic relations in January 1961. Williams’ trip marked the most direct contact the two sides have publicly acknowledged in at least a generation.

Periodic talks were limited to migration issues from 1994 until they were canceled under President George W. Bush in 2003.

The last political discussions between the two countries were held in March 1982, when the Reagan administration sent Vernon Walters to Havana for talks with Fidel Castro that proved largely fruitless.

In addition to Sanchez, Roque, and Roca, dissidents meeting with Williams included Rene Gomez Manzano and Felix Bonne. Cuba’s government tolerates no official opposition, and considers dissidents traitors who are working with Washington to undermine the communist system.