The US President Barack Obama promised Cuba’s most prominent dissident group Ladies in White that he will directly discuss human rights issues with Raul Castro in his visit on March 20-22.
Obama told the Ladies in White -a group of wives and children of political prisoners who march weekly to protest Cuba’s communist government- that he understood their struggle, and said they are "an inspiration to human rights movements around the world" in his letter dated March 10.
The group leader Berta Soler read the letter to about two dozen supporters gathered in a Havana park on Sunday.
"I fully understand the obstacles that ordinary Cubans face in exercising their rights," Obama wrote in English.
"The United States 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."
"As I have in the past, I will raise these issues directly with President Castro," he stressed.
The White House confirmed the letter.
US support for the dissidents is a source of tension ahead of Obama's visit, the first by a US president since Calvin Coolidge’s visit in 1928.
Obama and Castro declared the visit on December 2014, when they announced the former adversaries would normalise relations after a 54-year break.
The Ladies in White criticized Obama's policy change, saying the Cuban government continues to suppress dissent by breaking up anti-government demonstrations while maintaining a monopoly on the media.
Sunday’s demonstration ended with police detaining the protesters, while hundreds of government supporters filled streets in their own rally.
The White House announced Obama will meet with anti-regime dissidents in Havana, in a bid to deflect criticism, although it has not given any details beyond insisting that they will not be hand picked by the Cuban government.
The Cuban government dismisses the dissidents as mercenaries seeking to destabilize the country.
Cuba also defends its universal healthcare and education as human rights and criticizes the US record on race relations and the Guantanamo Bay military prison.