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Cuba Dissidents Gather in Puerto Rico as US Embassy Flag Raising Nears

Image: CUBA-US-EMBASSY

Workers set up a dais at the US embassy in Havana during preparations for its inauguration, on August 12, 2015. The former US Interests Section became an embassy on July 20, but no US flag flies over the building until US Secretary of State John Kerry visits Cuba on August 14 and formally inaugurates it. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGEYAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images AFP - Getty Images

As some of the U.S.’s Cold War anti-Cuba policies further erode, where does that leave opposition groups who have pressed for decades for a free Cuba?

Cuba dissidents from the island nation and other parts of the world began gathering in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this week where they will hash out their future in an environment of changed U.S. policy, along with other issues, said Guillermo Toledo, coordinator of the National Cuban Gathering organized by Cubanos Unidos de Puerto Rico.

“We know now we are going to strive stronger for Cuban liberty and freedom because that is circumstantial change with the new Washington politics about Cuba,” Toldeo said. “It doesn’t change our effort to try to get the freedom of Cuba.”

The gathering of representatives from some 30 leading Cuba opposition groups is occurring the same week the U.S. is opening its embassy in Havana, one of the bigger changes in U.S.-Cuba relations the Obama administration negotiated over months of high-level talks. The U.S. embassy in Cuba ceremonially opens Friday. The visit there by Secretary of State John Kerry for the flag-raising will be the first time in 60 years a U.S. secretary of state has visited the island.

Some of the invited include Eliécer Avila, Magaly Broche de la Cruz, one of the Damas de Blanco, a well known protest group, leaders of Consenso Cubano and Fundación Nacional Cubano Americano, among others.

Toledo said the groups hold differing views about the U.S. changed policies toward Cuba, but they have a united purpose.

Kerry: Direct Diplomatic Relations With Cuba Will Help the People 1:09

“We are going to talk about the possibility of to be united in the adversity against the Cuban regime, against the Cuban government, the totalitarian regime in Cuba. We are all democratic people,” Toledo said in a telephone interview with NBC News.

He said the group will try to come to agreement about a strategy it can adopt to “fight against the totalitarian regime in Cuba.”

“We are going to talk about the new Cuba and the new government in Cuba,” he said.

The closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba, though welcomed by many, also has much opposition, in Congress, in the Cuban American community, in Cuba and in other areas.

There are complaints that the U.S. did not go far enough in exacting concessions from Cuba, before easing restrictions on travel, expanding exports allowable to Cuba, expanding telecommunications trade and more.

RELATED: 10 Steps Obama Is Planning To Take On Cuba

In its 2015 World Report, Human Rights Watch said the Cuban government used long-term prison sentences less to punish dissidents, but dramatically increased short-term, arbitrary arrests to harass and intimidate opposition activists.

On Wednesday, Kerry said the U.S. will be able to more effectively address human rights concerns under the new U.S.-Cuba structure.

“Being there, being able to interact with the people of Cuba, will in fact help the people of Cuba. It will shed light on what is happening,” Kerry said in an interview with Telemundo.

In the interview, Kerry said he'd meet with dissidents at the U.S. mission in Cuba and a reception following the flag raising, but the dissidents are not invited to the flag raising ceremony at the embassy because that is a "government-to-government moment."

Opposition remains in Congress, and even as the flag raising at the Cuban embassy neared, opponents to Obama’s new Cuba policies kept up their criticism.

GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who hopes to replace Obama in the White House, sent a letter Thursday to Kerry complaining of Cuba’s improved standing in the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report, released last month.

Cuba went from a Tier 3 category to Tier 2 “watch list.” The island nation has been listed at Tier 3 every year, Rubio said in his letter.

The Florida senator called the change “politically driven manipulation” that “threatens to set back U.S. efforts against human trafficking around the world.”

Rubio sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairs its subcommittee that deals with transnational crime, human rights and other issues. He has demanded the State Department turn over previous drafts of the Cuba portion of this year’s report as well as who signed off on it in the White House and State Department.

"Over the past year, Cuba has done almost nothing to combat human trafficking," Rubio said. "In fact, while the 2015 trafficking report claims there were improvements in certain areas, Cuba still has not even bothered to create a single law that identifies labor trafficking as a crime."

In his interview with Telemundo, Kerry refuted allegations of a politically driven decision in Cuba's listing.

"The trafficking in persons, is a judgment that was made based on the merits of what Cuba has done and engaged in with respect to counter-trafficking efforts. Every judgment is based on the record. I make the final decision. I had no discussion outside of this building with the White House or any other entity about whether or not this should happen," Kerry said.

Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans, criticized the embassy ceremonial opening, it actually opened July 20, in a news conference in Miami Wendesday.

"He might as well be raising the white flag of surrender," Diaz-Balart said of Kerry's plans to raise the American flag at the U.S. embassy.

The issue is not devoid of 2016 presidential politics. Along with Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also is running and like Rubio is Cuban-American with family who are fierce opponents of the Castro regime and of relaxing this country's embargo of Cuba.

Cubans have long been reliably Republican voters and the many Cuban Americans in Miami has helped build Florida's standing as a battleground state. But there has been change in political loyalties, particularly among younger Cuban Americans and any improvement in the relationship with Cuba that could be exploited by Democrats intensifies the struggle for the vote in that community.

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