Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Visa for Castro’s niece turns into political tempest in Florida

    Posted on Tuesday, 05.22.12

    Visa for Castro's niece turns into political tempest in Florida
    McClatchy Newspapers

    WASHINGTON -- Florida's top congressional Democrats broke with President
    Barack Obama on Tuesday over his administration's decision to issue
    Fidel Castro's niece a visa to attend a conference this week in San

    The opposition of Sen. Bill Nelson and Democratic National Committee
    Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz came just hours after Republicans
    had blasted away at the visa decision - while failing to acknowledge
    that Republican President George W. Bush's administration had allowed
    Mariela Castro to visit the United States three times a decade ago.

    The fact that Republicans had remained silent over Bush's decision while
    criticizing Obama gave Wasserman Schultz a measure of political cover in
    breaking with Obama.

    "The Bush Administration set a bad precedent by granting Mariela Castro
    a waiver in 2001 and 2002 as I believe that such visa requests should
    not be accepted because of the ongoing human rights abuses in Cuba," she
    said in a written statement to The Miami Herald. "While I respect my
    colleagues, it's important to note they did not criticize President
    George W. Bush for granting Ms. Castro a waiver in 2002. Politics has no
    place when we are standing up for human rights."

    Nelson was more terse and more concerned with the plight of a jailed

    "Allowing Raul's daughter to come to the U.S. when the regime still
    holds Alan Gross makes no sense," said Nelson, who faces a tough
    re-election campaign this fall.

    Mariela Castro, a noted gay-rights activist who heads a sex-education
    center in Cuba, is the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro. She is
    scheduled to lead a panel on sexual diversity at the Latin American
    Studies Association conference in San Francisco this week. She is among
    more than 70 Cubans who applied for visas for the event; the State
    Department has denied about a half dozen of the requests.

    Both Wasserman Schultz and Nelson had remained quiet on the visa
    controversy until asked this week by The Herald.

    Meanwhile, the Florida Democratic Party has been vigorously defending
    the Obama administration's visa decision since last week. That's when
    Cuban-American Republicans from Miami, including Reps. Ileana
    Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera, began criticizing the
    administration's move.

    Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a vice-presidential short-lister for
    Republican Mitt Romney., said it was "shameful" to grant the visa. He
    described the Cuban president's daughter as "an arm of his regime" who's
    coming to the United States to "spread their anti-American propaganda."

    Romney's presidential campaign took advantage of the issue to slam
    Obama. "The United States should be standing up for freedom, not
    coddling the privileged children of communist dictators," Romney's
    policy director, Lanhee Chen, said late last week.

    On Tuesday, Republicans blasted out news releases all but calling Obama
    a communist. "Obama Lays Welcome Mat for Communist at U.S. Front Door"
    said one news release from the Hispanic Leadership Network. "Obama
    Rolling out the Red Carpet for the Castro Family," said one from the
    Republican National Committee.

    The political tempest comes at a time when the Republican Party is
    attacking Obama's record at every turn to excite a crucial conservative
    voting bloc for Romney in Florida: Cuban-Americans, who overwhelmingly
    vote Republican.

    In defending Obama, other Florida Democrats lashed out at Republicans
    for being hypocritical.

    "Where was their criticism then?" said Freddy Balsera, an Obama
    supporter from Miami, speaking on behalf of the Florida Democratic
    Party. "Nowhere, because ultimately this is all about politics for them."

    Balsera called on Republicans to "stop playing with people's emotions
    when it comes to Cuba."

    The Hispanic Leadership Network, partly led by former Florida Gov. Jeb
    Bush, says there's a huge difference between the Bush-era visits and the
    most recent visa approvals by Obama. The human rights situation in Cuba
    has deteriorated since Castro's initial visit, said its director,
    Jennifer Korn. That includes Gross' detention.

    Also, Mariela Castro, at the time of her initial visit, was the niece of
    the then-president, Fidel Castro. Now, she's the daughter of the Cuban
    president, Korn said.

    "The situations are not the least bit similar as the human rights
    situation has deteriorated," she said. "An American citizen is locked up
    in a Cuban jail now for trying to provide Internet access to Cubans, and
    in the last few months since Pope Benedict's visit, Cubans have lived
    under even more fear as they cope with a large roundup of dissidents and

    By day's end, the conservatives had unexpected ideological allies in
    Nelson and Wasserman Schultz, who has long straddled the dual worlds of
    being a partisan Democrat and a Cuba hardliner.

    After she was first picked by Obama to become DNC chair, a May 2011
    Miami Herald story noted that the two differ over Cuba.

    "It's not going to be something that creates any daylight between the
    president and myself," she said at the time.