Cuban abuses may scuttle efforts to ease sanctions
Posted on Sunday, 03.28.10
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.