As It Happens

Cubans say Obama visit dismantles 'the whole system of repression'

Journalist Miriam Leiva will be among the critics of the Cuban government present at a meeting with United States President Barack Obama. She believes change may not come as fast as some may hope, but says ultimately it is sign of progress.
United States President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro shake during their meeting at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, in Havana, Cuba. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
On Monday, Cubans witnessed a remarkable spectacle. The President of the United States shook hands with President Raúl Castro in Havana's Palace of the Revolution. Then, they went outside to pose for a photo in front of a giant image of Che Guevara.

President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba is the first by an American president in almost 90 years. His hope is to solidify the opening up of relations between the long-time enemies.

Human rights activist and independent journalist, from Havana, Cuba, Miriam Leiva, left, watches fellow witnesses Rosa Maria Payá , Cuban Christian Liberation Movement and daughter of slain dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Manuel Cuesta Morúa, spokesperson for Arco Progresista and Coordinator of Nuevo País, of Havana, Cuba during a hearing on Cuba on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Obama is set to meet with critics of the Castro government, including independent journalist Miriam Leiva, whose late husband was jailed as a dissident. Leiva is also one of the founders of the opposition group Ladies In White. In advance of Tuesday's meeting, Leiva spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.
Government supporters stage a counter-protest to one held by Ladies in White, a dissident women's group that calls for the release of political prisoners, near the dissident group's weekly protest in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. U.S. The signs at bottom read in Spanish: "We all march on for my homeland." (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

Carol Off: Ms. Leiva, what is it like for you to see an American president welcomed into the heart of Havana?

Miriam Leiva: It is overwhelming, really. I think that the Cuban people are very happy and I am very happy too because I think it's the opening of new opportunities. In the first place, We've always submitted to great stress, while repression is maintained. Everyone has hope and expectations, maybe too many. But, I think it's a sense that we can have more Americans coming, more Cuban Americans coming, Cubans going to the United States and this flow of information, ideas and assistance from the government of the United States is very important.
US President Barack Obama (3-R), US Secretary of State John Kerry (2-R) and the Vice-President of the Cuban State Council Salvador Valdes Mesa (R) attend a wreath-laying ceremony at Jose Marti monument in the Revolution square of Havana on March 21, 2016. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Raúl Castro has promised a lot and has not fulfilled his promises. He has lost complete credibility. The most important and the most popular person in Cuba is President Obama.- Miriam Leiva
Members of dissident group "Ladies in White", wives of former political prisoners protest on March 20, 2016 in Havana. (Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images)

CO: The problem that people are noting is that this opening up might just create increased trade between your countries: tourism, travel, a path for corporations to have joint ventures, more Cubans will go to the States, job opportunities. But at the same time, there will not be an opening of civil liberties, of free speech, of religious freedom. Do you share that concern?

ML: The government cannot isolate people anymore. It's impossible because the Cuban people always want to know more, to have more contact. It's a process that is slow. Of course, what the Cuban government wants is only commerce, credit, investments. But the economy is in such a terrible situation. Cubans are having so many economic difficulties and social difficulties and people want to speak out. So this cannot be stopped. The government will try, all the time, to stop it.

I think that the most important thing is that there's not this confrontation with the United States. It means that the Cuban government doesn't have the pretext, the alibi, to say that it's closed because of the Americans, because Americans are coming here for an invasion, or want to change the government. So the excuse the government had, has lost it. Now, the government I think is very concerned, very preoccupied, because President Obama has changed the whole scheme, the whole system, of repression and justifying.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Take a listen to our full interview.

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