Cuban abuses may scuttle efforts to ease sanctions
Some monumental misbehavior by the Castro government may scuttle a move
in Congress to ease sanctions.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
The recent brutish crackdown on the Ladies in White protest marchers,
the latest in a string of abuses in Cuba, might delay or derail
congressional efforts to ease sanctions on the Castro government, even
supporters of a thaw acknowledge.
``Those who want to unconditionally lift sanctions were already in an
uphill climb for votes, and all this will definitely not help them,''
said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba
Democracy political action committee.
By ``all this'' he referred not just to the crackdown on peaceful
marchers, but to the Feb. 23 death of jailed dissident Orlando Zapata
amid a hunger strike and the detention of U.S. subcontractor Alan P.
Gross since Dec. 3.
International condemnations rained down on Havana for the Zapata and
Ladies in White cases. President Barack Obama blasted Cuban authorities
last week, saying they ``continue to respond to the aspirations of the
Cuban people with a clenched fist.''
Cuba dismissed Zapata as a ``common criminal'' and the Ladies in White,
who demand the release of their jailed relatives, as part of an
organized media campaign designed to highlight U.S.-financed
``mercenaries'' out to topple the communist system.
A Washington Post editorial Friday urged Congress to quickly release $20
million for democracy programs on the island -- funding that angers the
Castro government. ``This is the wrong time for the United States to be
holding up support for Cuba's courageous dissidents,'' it said.
Some backers of easing Cuba sanctions agree the recent events have
impacted their cause.
``It probably makes things a little more difficult,'' said Phil Peters,
a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia think tank.
``There may be some Congress members in the middle [of the sanctions
debate] who see this and simply shy away.''
One anti-sanctions activist compared the effort to ease U.S. policies on
Cuba to a potato that fewer people want to handle as it gets hotter.
``It does make it politically more difficult to get engaged in Cuba when
the government there does these kinds of things,'' said the activist,
who asked for anonymity to avoid undermining his cause.
That cause was already hit hard when three of Congress' strongest
supporters of lifting all restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba announced
they would not seek reelection: Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., and Sens.
Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Byron Dorgan, D-ND.
Adding to the discomfort in Washington was the arrest of Gross -- still
held though no charges have been filed -- while delivering satellite
communications equipment to Cuba's tiny Jewish community.
Forty-one Congress members last week wrote to the head of Cuba's
diplomatic mission in Washington, Jorge Bolaños, complaining that the
Gross detention had caused ``great consternation'' among U.S. officials
``including both Democrat and Republican members of the United States
Congress, whether liberal or conservative.''
``It has caused many to doubt your government's expressed desire to
improve relations with the United States. We cannot assist in that
regard while Mr. Gross is detained,'' the lawmakers warned.
The letter was signed by Gross' congressman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen,
D-Md., powerful head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee,
and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Several signers have
supported past votes on easing Cuba sanctions, Claver-Carone said.
And a long-stalled bill that would lift all Cuba travel restrictions has
yet to come up for a vote in the House Committee on Agriculture even
though it was submitted by the committee's chairman, Rep. Collin C.
Peterson, D-Minn. Peterson is still looking for the votes needed to pass
the measure, according to congressional officials.
``They still have four months to approve it'' before Congress halts to
campaign for reelection in November, said Claver-Carone. ``But if they
were stuck before, they definitely are not moving forward now.''
Backers of easing sanctions on Cuba continue to argue, however, that
after five decades of aggressive U.S. policies that have produced no
changes in Havana, it's time to shift gears and engage the island's
government on as many fronts as possible.
``There's no illusion in Congress about the nature of the government in
Cuba, said Peters. ``But they want to open up precisely because it's the
right policy to have toward a repressive government -- a position from
which to push harder on human rights issues.''
Anya Landau-Frenchm, director of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the
New American Foundation in Washington, had a similar take.
``You might argue that because of human rights we should be ...[tough]
on Cuba,'' she said. ``I would argue that's exactly why we should be
engaged. In the face of such adversity, you stick to your principles and
you try to help the Cuban people rather than isolating them.''
Robert Pastor, former President Jimmy Carter's lead man on Cuba, agrees.
U.S. policy should be to condemn human rights violations in Cuba while
closely engaging the island's government to promote U.S. interests, said
Pastor, now a professor of international relations at American University.
But he also acknowledged how difficult that would be.