Impassioned debate on Cuba travel ban
At House hearing, both sides invoke name of same dissident
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009
At a tempestuous hearing Thursday, one House member after another
criticized a growing campaign to lift the ban on American tourists
traveling to Cuba. The move would reward a regime that oppresses its own
people, lawmakers declared, pointing to the recent assault on Yoani
Sánchez, a Cuban blogger and government critic, by suspected state
The beating showed that "the Cuban regime has not unclenched its fist,"
said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the senior Republican on the House
Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Now is not the time to change policy and start appeasing and funding
the Castro clan," said Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), citing Sánchez's case.
There was just one problem with making Sánchez the poster child for the
travel ban: She opposes it.
Halfway through the hearing, the committee's chairman, Howard L. Berman
(D-Calif.), produced a letter he had received from the prominent
blogger. "An opening of travel for Americans could bring more results in
the democratization of Cuba than the indecisive performance of Raúl
Castro," she wrote, referring to Cuba's president.
With Cuba having receded as a Cold War security threat, the country's
human rights record is now at the center of U.S. policy toward the
island. But as Thursday's hearing showed, lawmakers and even Cuban
dissidents appear sharply divided on how to bring about change in the
hemisphere's oldest dictatorship.
Supporters of lifting the travel ban think the move would loosen the
communist government's grip by bringing in a flood of American tourists
spreading democratic ideas. That argument was advanced Thursday by a
prominent supporter of Cuban political prisoners, Miriam Leiva,
testifying from Havana.
"Many thousands of Americans visiting Cuba would benefit our society,"
Leiva said, her face appearing on two video screens that loomed over the
room in the Rayburn House Office Building. "Firstly, through the free
flow of ideas, and further, by pressing the government to open up
self-employment to provide goods and services, such as renting rooms,
because the capacities in the hotels would be surpassed."
In the audience, a group of older men, wearing fist-size white buttons
showing how many years they had spent in Cuban prisons, shook their
heads and muttered. Berta Antúnez, the sister of a longtime Cuban
political prisoner, rejected Leiva's arguments.
"For years, European, Canadian and Latin American tourists have traveled
to Cuba without having any impact on the Cuban reality" but still
filling government coffers, said Antúnez, who testified in person. She
sat at a table with witnesses including James Cason, a former chief of
the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba who favors the ban, and retired Gen.
Barry McCaffrey, a Clinton administration anti-drug official who wants
Berman says those who support lifting the ban have their best chance in
years to get rid of it, thanks to Democratic control of the White House
and Congress and backing from a wide range of business, agricultural and
other groups. He says the House may act on legislation by the spring.
But many lawmakers — including Democrats — say they fear such a change
could help prop up the Castro brothers, Raúl and his predecessor, Fidel.
"It takes two to tango," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), noting that
the Obama administration has loosened restrictions on Cuban Americans'
visits and remittances to the island. It is time, he said, for the Cuban
government to make a gesture.
President Obama repeated that argument this week, responding to written
questions from the ubiquitous Sánchez. In his first exchange with a
Cuban blogger, Obama said that normalizing relations "will require
action by the Cuban government" and that he is not interested in
"talking for the sake of talking."
Asked if he would be willing to visit Cuba, the president said,
"Diplomatic tools should only be used after careful preparation and as
part of a clear strategy."
The comments were published on Sánchez's blog, "Generación Y," which
features witty, biting articles on Cuba's communist system. It is
blocked on the island.
Sánchez has become widely known outside Cuba, with Time magazine
recently naming her one of the world's 100 most influential people. On
Nov. 6, she was headed to an anti-violence march in Havana when she was
grabbed by men in street clothes who, she said, forced her into a car,
kicking her, before letting her go.
Her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, told the Associated Press that Sánchez
had sent her questions to the White House more than three months ago.
The answers arrived Wednesday night, he said.
"We had very little hope [Obama] was going to answer," Escobar told the
AP. "He's the president. He's very busy with other things."
At House hearing, two sides debate U.S. ban on travel to Cuba –
washingtonpost.com (20 November 2009)