MIAMI Cuban-American pop star Gloria Estefan asked President Barack Obama to work for the freedom of jailed dissidents in Cuba during a political fundraising event that seemed certain to anger the island's communist rulers.
Estefan and her musical entrepreneur husband Emilio Estefan hosted a cocktail reception at their Miami home for Obama on Thursday evening, the first of two Democratic Party fundraisers he attended during a visit to Florida.
During the reception, Obama was given a letter from the mother of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died on February 23 after an 85-day hunger strike to protest prison conditions in Cuba, participants in the event said.
Local media reported Obama was also given a letter from another Cuban dissident hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, who is seeking the release of ailing political prisoners. The president also viewed photographs of mothers and wives of jailed Cuban dissidents, known as the Ladies in White, being harassed in Havana by Cuban security agents and pro-government militants, local media said.
Zapata's death and the subsequent incidents involving Cuban dissidents in recent weeks have triggered international criticism of Cuban President Raul Castro's government, including a stern denunciation last month from Obama.
But Castro, who took over the Cuban presidency from his ailing elder brother Fidel in 2008, has rejected the pressure for political change and for the release of dissidents, saying his government will not submit to "blackmail."
Cuban authorities routinely portray internal opponents as "mercenaries" and "traitors" in the pay of the United States and describe Miami as a center of U.S.-backed "counter-revolution" and hostility against communist rule.
HOPES FOR THAW HAVE FADED
In her words welcoming Obama and other guests at her home, Estefan referred to an "oppressive government" in Cuba, which she called "the country where I was born, a place where hope and freedom only live in history, not in the present."
The reception was closed to media, but local TV networks showed photographs of Obama viewing photographs of the Cuban dissident "Ladies in White" at the Estefan home.
The speech by Estefan, whose father fought in the failed 1961 U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba by Cuban exiles, was published on Friday by the Miami Herald.
At a second Democratic fundraising event in Miami later on Thursday, Obama spoke publicly and reaffirmed U.S. support for earthquake-hit Haiti, but did not refer to Cuba in the speech.
After taking office early last year, Obama said he wanted to attempt a "new beginning" to improve U.S.-Cuban ties, and he eased restrictions on Cuban-American family visits and money remittances to Cuba in a slight relaxation of the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against the island.
But he also called on the Cuban leadership to reciprocate by improving human rights and political freedom.
Hopes for a Havana-Washington thaw have faded however following the arrest in Cuba in December of a U.S. contractor accused of illegally distributing telecommunications equipment and jailed dissident Zapata's death in February.
Some members of Miami's Cuban-American community, a traditional Republican stronghold, had criticized the Democratic fundraiser hosted by Estefan. But she parried this criticism by saying it was an opportunity to "get the ear" of the president to talk to him about the situation in Cuba.
(Editing by Eric Beech)