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As Obama trip to Cuba nears, Havana gives dissidents permission to travel abroad

President Obama will visit Cuba next month in his latest effort to push the Castro regime to improve the plight of its citizens. In a goodwill gesture, Havana has granted seven dissidents a one-time travel opportunity.

Cuba's government has granted seven prominent dissidents a one-time opportunity to travel abroad.

The move is an apparent overture towards US President Barack Obama, who ended more than 50 years of Cold War isolation against Cuba in 2014 and

plans to travel to the Caribbean island

next month.

Critics of

Obama's move to restore diplomatic relations

with Cuba say the US has gotten little in return. Obama's visit is scheduled for March 21-22 and is intended to press the Castro regime to improve conditions for its people.

Around the end of 2014 Cuba's communist government freed 53 prisoners the US said were political detainees, but detentions have since resumed. The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation said more than 700 people were detained every month in 2015, albeit for short periods.

The seven dissidents now granted travel permission are part of a larger group of 11 prominent dissidents - the four not allowed to travel are reportedly more active members of the group.

Black Spring

The 11 dissidents were imprisoned during the 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring, which saw 75 people arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Six years ago, under pressure from the Catholic Church and from Spain, Cuba freed the dissidents on the condition that they leave the island country - permanently.

Most left, but Marta Beatriz Roque - once described as Cuba's "leading woman dissident" - was one of the 11 who decided to stay.

On Sunday, she and six other former prisoners were contacted by Cuban immigration officials and told to report to state offices the following day. There they were told that they would be able to travel overseas once and return to Cuba.

The dissidents described the government's explanation for the travel opportunity as a reward for good behavior. Roque said she plans to visit family in America, but understands the opportunity is politically motivated.

Jose Daniel Ferrer

Ferrer is one of the four dissidents denied the travel opportunity

"It appears to be some kind of gift they want to present to Obama, but in reality it is nothing concrete because when we come back we will return to legal limbo," Roque told the Reuters news agency.

One of the four dissidents denied the travel opportunity was Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba which, at around 3,000 members, makes it the country's largest dissident group.

"It's a little gift ahead of the Obama visit for those seven," Ferrer told Reuters. "The other four, we were not even offered this little present because, according to the regime, those seven behave well and the four of us behave poorly, something we reject."

bik/cmk (AP, Reuters)

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