President Barack Obama on Wednesday denounced the human rights situation in communist Cuba as “deeply disturbing,” underscoring continuing tensions with Havana despite his pledge to recast relations.
Obama, in a written statement, cited the death last month of jailed Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo and what he described as “intensified harassment of those who dare to give voice to the desires of their fellow Cubans.”
“These events underscore that instead of embracing an opportunity to enter a new era, Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist,” Obama said.
Obama reiterated a long-standing U.S. call for Cuba’s communist government to release all political prisoners unconditionally.
“Recent events in Cuba … are deeply disturbing,” Obama said.
After taking office last year, Obama promised to recast Washington’s troubled relationship with Cuba and took initial steps such as lifting restrictions on family visits and slightly softening the 47-year-old trade embargo on the island.
But hopes for warmer ties have dissipated amid familiar disputes over remaining U.S. trade restrictions, spying and human rights. U.S. critics of Obama’s outreach to Havana say he has gotten little in return.
Cuba has accused the Obama administration of continuing to meddle in its affairs by supporting and funding dissident groups in the same way as previous U.S. governments.
“During the course of the past year, I have taken steps to reach out to the Cuban people and to signal my desire to seek a new era in relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba,” Obama said.
“I remain committed to supporting the simple desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their future and to enjoy the rights and freedoms that define the Americas,” he said.
Pro-government protesters and police violently disrupted a recent series of marches by opposition activists in Havana.
Arrests and rough tactics brought fresh international condemnation for the Cuban government, already under fire for the Feb. 23 death of Zapata after an 85-day hunger strike protesting prison conditions.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Will Dunham)