Cuban police forcibly broke up a pro-democracy demonstration and arrested several dozen activists on Sunday, just hours before Barack Obama was to arrive in Havana to become the first US president to visit Cuba in almost 90 years.

The protesters, from the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and other opposition groups, were bundled into buses and police vans after a shouting match with pro-Castro supporters during their usual weekly demonstration near the Santa Rita church.

“My son and his wife are in jail now. They all are. The police were very violent,” Glavys Fernández, the mother of leading opposition figure Antonio Rodiles, told the Guardian. “It’s the same every week. The oppression is very high.”

Earlier in the day, her son, who helped form the Todos Marchamos (“We all march”) campaign, predicted what was to come as he addressed journalists before the protest.

“I have been arrested more than 50 times in the past year,” Rodiles said. “The police have broken my nose and my eardrum. There are many of them surrounding us again today. But we want to send a clear message to Obama. We need to show the reality we are living in.”

The protesters carried banners, proclaiming: “Obama’s trip to Cuba isn’t for fun. No to violations of human rights.” Others chanted, “Obama, we have a dream: a Cuba without Castros.”

“I’ve been detained and beaten countless times,” said Eralidis Frómeta Polanco, an activist who turned up in the all-white clothes of the demonstrators, who march silently along 5th Avenue each week in protest at the lack of freedom of expression. “I have no hope at all of progress as a result of Obama’s visit. He doesn’t know what it is like to live in a dictatorship.”

A passing cyclist, Josoa Gomez, who said he was a university professor, accused her and the other protesters of being liars, mercenaries and ingrates who failed to recognise the benefits of Cuban society, including free education and healthcare. The tensions escalated up until the arrests.

The confrontation highlights what is likely to be one of the most contentious issues of the US president’s visit: human rights and pro-democracy reforms.

Many Cuban opposition activists complain the rapprochement process that started in 17 December 2014 gives the Castro government legitimacy and greater access to international credit. They say releases of hundreds of prisoners, which have been hailed as the most tangible signs of change since then, are illusory, because convictions have not been pardoned and the activists remain under a legal cloud.

Human Rights Watch said the situation for civil rights activists has not improved since the rapprochement began between Obama and Raúl Castro. They noted that during Pope Francis’s visit to the island last September, police detained between 100 and 150 dissidents. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported more than 8,500 cases of arbitrary detention in 2015, and more than 2,500 in the first two months of 2016.

Democracy activists in the one-party state are pushing for a range of reforms, including free elections, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and an end to repression of activists. They want Obama to lobby on their behalf.

US officials say the president, who will meet civil rights activists and give a speech on Tuesday, is not in Havana to make demands, but to encourage reforms that have already begun, particularly in the area of economic liberalisation. However, they say he will talk candidly about human rights and the need for participation in decision making.

“The main message of his speech will be that Cuba’s future is for the Cuban people to decide. The goal is not to foster regime change,” said a state department official. “President Obama wants to show that the challenges Cubans face are not the result of US policy.”

No political conditions have been set for the visit and there is no expectation of a quid pro quo exchange from the Cubans for the US decision last week to relax currency and and travel restrictions. Change, if it comes at all, is more likely at next month’s Communist Party Congress.

One possibility is a referendum on the constitution that would allow Cuban voters to set the political direction for their country ahead of 2018, when Castro has said he plans to step down.

“There is the possibility of reform in April, but we must understand that the group in power for 57 years want to remain in power and keep their privileges,” said democracy campaigner Rosa María Payá, who has launched a petition calling for Obama to support the idea of a referendum during his visit to the island.

“He should ask for the specific tool of a plebiscite so that Cuban people can decide their future for the first time in 60 years,” she told the Guardian. “I hope he will support the Cuban people and not just talk to the leaders and have his picture taken.”

Payá wants the US president to make a symbolic gesture against impunity by laying flowers at the grave of her father, a leading democracy campaigner who died in mysterious circumstances in 2012. Cuban authorities say Oswaldo Payá died in a car crash. His family contends that government agents were following him and may have forced him off the road. They believe he is a victim of terror tactics used by the communist government to maintain one-party rule.

“We Cubans know what to do but we can’t do it alone because the Cuban government has weapons, and they are willing to use them – as we saw with the murder of my father,” Payá said. “We need the support of the international community.”

Before his detention, Rodiles argued Obama should stress political freedom and insist that the government in Havana ratify the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights.

“Raúl Castro has said he will move aside in 2018 and this has created the expectation of elections. But the real transfer is taking place right now so by the time Castro steps down, power will have already switched,” he said. “How can there be a proper referendum without freedom of expression, without access to a free TV and a free press? They will never allow me to go on television and debate the issues.”

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