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Cuban American Leaders Meet with Obama Ahead of Historic Trip

by Suzanne Gamboa and Sandra Lilley /

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A group of Cuban American leaders who met with President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday spoke of hope and renewal as they laid the groundwork for his upcoming historic trip to Havana.

“I think his heart is in the right place and he is sending a great message of peace to the world and I think he is going to bring a lot of hope to Cuba,” entertainment industry veteran Emilio Estefan said after the meeting. "This is what I told him: If you go and nothing happens, in the end I think this is good you know. The Cuban people will decide," he said.

Obama is scheduled to visit Cuba next Monday and Tuesday, becoming the first sitting president in 88 years to set foot on the the island.

Cuban American activist and businessman Jorge Mas said he hopes the president is able to speak directly to the Cuban people, and show that "the myth that the United States is responsible for the economic ills of Cuba is false" and that the U.S. wants to help the Cuban people.

Some of those at the meeting, including Miami-based businessman Mike Fernandez, will be going on the trip, and spoke of why they are supporting the president's overture.

"Cuba has been isolated. It is a system of isolation that has not worked anywhere in the world before. It is a system that has not opened doors, but it has crushed families,” said Fernandez. "What the president has done is open the door for all of us to be able to find our homeland - a place where many of us were born, including me."

In a phone call with reporters on Wednesday, administration officials outlined the activities planned for the president and his family during the three-day trip. It includes a visit to Old Havana's cathedral to meet with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega - credited along with Pope Francis with encouraging a normalization of relations between the two countries. He'll meet with young people and entrepreneurs, and visit the Jose Martí Memorial and attend a much-anticipated baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team.

But it's Obama's speech to the Cuban people on Tuesday followed by a meeting with Cuban civil society - including human rights activists - that is being anticipated with trepidation by Cuban Americans and Cuban dissidents who do not want the issue of human rights to be diluted during the visit.

Leticia Ramos, a representative of the Cuban opposition group Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) has been in Miami, where she met with Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes at a conference sponsored by the Cuban American National Foundation. Rhodes gave Ramos a letter from Obama in response to a letter Damas de Blanco sent him.

In a phone interview with NBC Latino, Ramos said she hopes Obama can meet with dissidents like her group, "...y oír de nuestra propia boca lo que está pasando," ("and hear from our own mouths what is happening"). She said that while they are not opposed to better relations between the U.S. and Cuba, they don't want to see the existing Cuban government get stronger. Activists have said they are worried about who will eventually get to meet with Obama and whether they truly represent dissident groups in the island.

As to the speech Obama will make at the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso on Tuesday, Rhodes told reporters the administration expects it will be broadcast widely and has not met with any resistance from Cuban officials. "We want all events to reach the Cuban people - that's a point we've made," he said.

While Obama met with the Cuban leaders, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., spoke against the trip from the Senate floor.

"At the very least, the president’s first stops should be meetings with internationally-recognized dissidents," Menendez said before ticking off a list of names. "Only then will the message that the United States will not give in or give up on our commitment to a free and democratic Cuba be clear to the world and to the Cuban people."

Rhodes said the president will address human rights. "We have been and continue to be clear about our support for people everywhere - not just in Cuba - to have a right to free speech and free assembly and the right to determine their own future." But he also reiterated that the U.S. "will not dictate change in Cuba."

Several of those at the White House meeting expressed the need for protection of human rights. Estefan said with Cuba open it will be easier to monitor Cuba's human rights record.

As to the meeting with dissidents, Rhodes said Obama has "every expectation he could meet with people he chooses."

Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis said he has seen great anticipation among Cubans for the trip. "The enthusiasm that we saw on Dec. 17, 2014 has been growing ever since."

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