U.S. President Barack Obama promised in a letter to the prominent Cuban dissident group Ladies in White that he would raise human rights issues with Cuban President Raul Castro during his visit to the island nation later this month.
Obama said he understood the struggles of the Ladies in White, but defended his policy of seeking to normalize relations with Cuba.
Ladies in White, a group made up of wives and children of Cuban political prisoners, has strongly criticized the president's policy change.
The group said the Castro regime continues to suppress anti-government dissent and maintains a monopoly on the media. They also said authorities have cracked down more since the two countries announced plans to normalize relations in December 2014.
"We take seriously the concerns you have raised," Obama wrote in English.
"I will raise these issues directly with President Castro," he said, praising the Ladies as "an inspiration to human rights movements around the world."
"I fully understand the obstacles that ordinary Cubans face in exercising their rights," Obama wrote. "The U.S. believes that no one in Cuba or anywhere else should face harassment, arrest, or physical assault just because they are exercising a universal right to have their voices heard."
The White House confirmed the letter.
Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, who read the letter to about two dozen members and other supporters in Havana, told the Latin Post, Obama's missive was positive feedback and the group greatly appreciated it.
Obama will visit the Caribbean nation March 20-22. It will be the first visit by a U.S. president since Fidel Castro's rebels overthrew a pro-American government in 1959.
On Monday, Obama told U.S. diplomats at the State Department that his upcoming trip to Cuba would begin a new era in relations with the country.
"And diplomacy, including having the courage to turn a page on the failed policies of the past, is how we've begun a new chapter of engagement with the people of Cuba. What a historic day it was when [U.S. Secretary of State] John [Kerry] reopened our embassy in Havana. And next week I look forward to being the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years without a battleship accompanying me," he said.
President Calvin Coolidge, in January 1928, was the last U.S. president to visit Cuba.
The Ladies in White hold weekly anti-government protests during Sunday Mass at the Santa Rita Church in Havana.
In a well-practiced choreography, officers stand by until the women shout “Freedom!” and try to sit on the street outside the church. The protesters are then whisked off to police stations and empty schools, held for hours, released and driven home. They return the following week.
They plan to protest when Obama visits on March 20.
Last week, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, one of the architects of Obama's Cuba policy, traveled to Miami as part of a listening tour ahead of the president’s historic trip.
Rhodes spend Friday meeting with Cuban-American students, activists, members of Cuba's civil society, exiled Cubans and journalists.
He said he told the groups the White House goal isn’t to topple the Castro government, but to open up society through diplomatic and trade relations.
"The fact of the matter is we don't have any expectation that Cuba is going to transform its political system in the near term," Rhodes said Friday. "Even if we got 10 dissidents out of prison, so what? What's going to bring change is having Cubans have more control over their own lives."