Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Obama administration demand release of Cuban
Vladimir Morera Bacallao hospitalized after 81-day hunger strike
State Department, GOP Miami lawmaker express concern over dissident
Dispute over political prisoner is hiccup in recent improved U.S.-Cuban ties
BY JAMES ROSEN
McClatchy Washington Bureau
In a rare alliance of often-conflicting viewpoints on U.S.-Cuban
relations, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart joined the State Department on Tuesday
in calling for the immediate release of a Cuban political prisoner who
is in intensive care following an 81-day hunger strike.
Vladimir Morera Bacallao was one of 53 dissidents released from prison
in January under an accord the previous month between President Barack
Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro. But he was detained again in April
after displaying a sign suggesting that the national elections were a sham.
"The United States is deeply concerned about the deteriorating physical
condition of Vladimir Morera Bacallao, who has been on a hunger strike
since October to protest his imprisonment for peacefully expressing
political dissent," said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman.
Toner, noting that Morera Bacallao has been hospitalized, reportedly in
very serious condition, added: "The United States urgently calls on the
Cuban government to release" the dissident.
The dispute was the most recent episode in a historic shift in relations
between Havana and Washington over the last year.
In a deal brokered by Pope Francis, the United States and Cuba in July
opened embassies in the two longtime adversaries' capitals, three months
after Obama and Castro became the first U.S. and Cuban leaders to meet
in more than a half century.
As part of the movement toward normalized relations, the Obama
administration has lightened restrictions on U.S. citizens' travel to
Cuba, although they must do so under a license from the U.S. Treasury
THE UNITED STATES URGENTLY CALLS ON THE CUBAN GOVERNMENT TO RELEASE MR.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner
Despite the administration's appeal for Morera Bacallao's release,
Diaz-Balart criticized both Obama and Castro for the dissident's
treatment by the Cuban government.
"Morera Bacallao has risked everything for the basic right to have a
voice in his government," the Miami Republican said. "His unjustifiable
imprisonment and mistreatment are further indictments of the brutal
malevolence of the Castro regime, and the utter failure of Obama's
appeasement of Cuba's dictators."
As part of a broader normalization of relations under a Dec. 17, 2014,
agreement, the Cuban government released the last of 53 political
prisoners last Jan. 11 from a list compiled by the United States.
"We know there are going to be human rights concerns we still have when
it comes to Cuba, but we are very pleased that they followed through on
this commitment," Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said in
January after all 53 had been freed.
During municipal elections in April, Morera Bacallao erected a sign that
read: "I vote for my freedom and not in an election where I cannot
choose my president."
Two opposition members, Hildebrando Chaviano and Yuniel Lopez, were the
first dissidents in decades to run in any election. Both lost their bids
for local government seats.
Despite the changes, the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba remains in
effect. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying the embargo costs the
American economy $1.2 billion a year, backs Obama's initiative to lift it.
All eight U.S.-Cuban members of Congress, among them four from Florida,
oppose normalized relations between the countries while Castro, the
brother of longtime leader Fidel Castro, remains in power.
Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, both seeking the
Republican presidential nomination, are among the most ardent opponents
of improved ties.
In addition to Rubio and Diaz-Balart, Republican Reps. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and Carlos Curbelo of Kendall oppose normalized
A Miami Herald poll published a year ago showed a distinct split in
viewpoints between Cuban-Americans born in the United States and those
who emigrated from Cuba.
A total of 64 percent of those born in the United States supported
Obama's initiative to normalize relations, compared with just 38 percent
of those born in Cuba.
Source: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Obama administration demand release of
Cuban prisoner | Miami Herald -