WASHINGTON — Shortly before traveling to Cuba to preside over the flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview that human rights will be "at the top" of his agenda in talks with his Cuban counterpart on Friday, and revealed that he will meet with Cuban government opponents while in the country.
But in an interview with the Miami Herald and CNN en Español in which he also disclosed new details about U.S.-Cuba talks on Venezuela, Kerry confirmed that Cuban dissidents will not be invited to Friday's official flag-raising ceremony at the embassy.
In response to criticism from Republicans in Congress and human rights groups that dissidents will be kept out of the embassy ceremony on Friday, Kerry said that "rather than have people sitting in a chair, at a ceremony that is fundamentally government-to-government, with very limited space, I will meet with them and actually have an opportunity to talk to them, and exchange views. They will come to our mission later in the day, along with a cross-section of Cuban civil society."
Asked about his scheduled meeting with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez during his trip to Havana — the first by a U.S. secretary of state to Cuba in 70 years — Kerry suggested that he will discuss a comprehensive normalization of ties that would include issues such as democratic freedoms and elections on the island.
Cuban President Raul Castro said after the two countries announced normalization talks Dec. 17 that Cuba "will not change" its communist system.
"I will sit down with my counterpart when I'm there on Friday," Kerry said. "We will talk very directly about a sort of road map toward real, full normalization."
Kerry, who will be on the ground in Cuba for just one day, said the road map covers a number of issues.
"Ultimately, that will include the lifting of the embargo, which we support, but it also will include Cuba moving forward on various things that make a difference . . . (like) the ability of people to engage in a democratic process, to elect people, to have their own choices," he said.
Talking specifically about democratic reforms, Kerry said the "Cuban people will have to decide that, not the United States."
But he added "there is no question in my mind that we will have a better opportunity to stand up and fight for human rights right there, being there, with an ambassador, with an embassy, able to engage with the people of Cuba."
Kerry also disputed criticism from Republicans in Congress that the Obama administration has given away everything without getting anything in return on the human rights front.
Only last month, Cuba detained more than 670 peaceful opponents, according to Cuba's Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Another 90 were detained Sunday during a peaceful protest in Havana, critics point out.
But Kerry countered that the past U.S. policy of confrontation didn't produce results over the past five decades.
"Tell me what has happened to change for the good over 54 years," he said. "What you have to compare is the energy and excitement people have felt about the potential of this change, versus what has happened over 54 years.
"In just a month and half, in the last month since the president announced this, we have seen travel go up 35 percent. We've seen already a feeling and energy being released because people are excited about the prospect of the United States engaging directly with the Cuban government," he said.
"This will not be the complete and total change that everybody wants overnight," he added. "It's going to take a little bit of time. But I am convinced that by being there, President (Barack) Obama is convinced that by being there, we will be able to do more to help the Cuban people."
In response to a question on whether the Obama administration will reduce U.S. funds to promote civil society in Cuba, including financial help to dissident groups there, and divert that money to help entrepreneurs and small businesses on the island, Kerry said he is not aware of any such plan.
"We will help entrepreneurship, and we want to help small business and people, but we will also continue to fund the democracy programs and other things that we have in the past," he said. "To the best of my knowledge, there is no reduction (of funds to dissident groups) that I'm aware of."
On Venezuela, Kerry confirmed that the U.S.-Cuba normalization talks have also included discussions on Venezuela and about the U.S. demand that the Dec. 6 legislative elections in the South American country be clean and monitored by credible international observers.
"Yes, we talked very specifically (with the Cubans) about the America's desire to have a relationship with the Venezuelan people that raises the ability of the people of Venezuela to be able to be protected, respected, represented and actually see their lives improve," Kerry said.
Asked what was the Cuban response, he said, "Well, they responded that they obviously have a clear relationship and interest in Venezuela, but that they can understand our desire to want to try to further our relationship there as well as in Cuba. They didn't make any promises, but hopefully they will represent that what we are doing with them now is beneficial (so) why shouldn't Venezuela also go the same road?"
Kerry described the situation in Venezuela as "very problematic," and said that if Venezuela doesn't allow credible international observers and doesn't release political prisoners, such as Leopoldo Lopez before the Dec. 6 elections, "it would have a serious impact" on the way the United States sees and deals with Venezuela.
He added that "we are very hopeful the elections will be transparent, accountable, well run, accessible to every sector of Venezuela's society, and we will measure that very carefully."