Dissidents hope for public recognition from Obama on Cuba visit

HAVANA (Reuters) - Ostracized by the government and mistrusted by much of the public, Cuba’s dissidents are hoping to receive a clear message of support from U.S. President Barack Obama when he visits the island next month.

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Obama plans to meet dissidents during his March 21-22 visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1928. It follows the rapprochement of December 2014, when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro ended more than five decades of Cold War-era animosity.

Cuba’s Communist government has long considered the dissidents a tiny and illegitimate minority funded by U.S. interests, while anti-Castro groups hold them up as champions of democracy.

Political opponents say a public blessing from Obama might improve their standing and the cause of human rights in Cuba.

“It’s possible the visit will help raise the hopes of the Cuban people, which is important because Cuba is short on many things, most of all hope,” said Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors arrests of political opponents.

Sanchez said Cuba is holding about 90 political prisoners, including some convicted hijackers and spies and 11 former prisoners out on parole. Cuba says it has no political prisoners.

In addition Cuban officials briefly detain an average of more than 700 dissidents a month, the commission says.

Obama’s Republican critics have called the visit a capitulation, while Cuban dissidents are mostly supportive.

“Any gesture of solidarity, any words or gestures, any contact with the peaceful opposition would be well received by the majority of the population,” said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, which says it has about 3,000 members, making it the largest opposition group in Cuba.

Cuban Foreign Ministry official Josefina Vidal said Cuba hoped Obama would meet with “the real Cuban civil society,” a term making a distinction between most Cubans and anti-government activists.

Some Cuban dissidents prefer the previous U.S. policy of isolating Cuba and say Obama has failed them.

The Ladies in White, who march each Sunday in Havana, say Obama is unwelcome unless he responds to their request that he denounce the repression of activists and calls for amnesty for political prisoners.

“If he makes a strong statement repudiating these human rights violations, then we will consider it an advance in human rights,” said Berta Soler, leader of the group. “In practice, we have not seen a thing.”

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Brown