Ahead of Obama visit, Cuba says ready to talk about rights

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is willing to talk with the United States about human rights, its top diplomat for U.S. relations said on Thursday in reference to a historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama set for March.

Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry, addresses the media during a conference in Havana February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

The White House earlier said Obama would raise Washington’s concerns about rights to free speech, free assembly and independent civil society during his two-day Cuba trip, the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1928.

“Cuba is open to speak to the U.S. government about any topic, including human rights,” Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, told reporters after the White House said Obama would travel to Cuba on March 21-22.

The trip follows the two countries’ move in 2014 to reopen ties after more than 50 years of hostile relations.

But Vidal made clear that Cuba’s idea of what constituted human rights did not coincide with Washington’s perception.

“We have different ideas (about rights), in the same way that different ideas exist about other topics like democracy, political models and international relations, she told reporters.

“We hope that President Obama will have the opportunity to converse with the real Cuban civil society,” Vidal said, using a term to draw a distinction from the opposition, which the government considers illegitimate.

Cuba says critics of its human rights record overlook a low crime rate and guaranteed healthcare and education.

Obama will meet with dissidents when he visits Cuba, the White House said. Republicans complained that the trip would lend legitimacy to the island’s Communist government.

Anti-government activists face harassment and short-term detention if they gather and protest in Cuba.

The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a dissident group, says there has been a spike in such detentions since November.

Cuba released 53 political prisoners around the time of rapprochement in December 2014.

But there are still about 90 political prisoners in Cuba, the commission said on Thursday, an increase of about 20 since it issued its annual report in June 2015.

The Cuban government see the dissidents as a tiny minority with little public support and financed indirectly by Washington.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Andrew Hay