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Senate creates Cuba Working Group as Castro crackdown endangers relations
CubaNews / April 2003

By Larry Luxner

Ten U.S. lawmakers have formed a Senate Working Group on Cuba, vowing to “examine U.S. policies, including trade and travel restrictions” — just as relations between the two countries hit their lowest point in years.

In a Mar. 24 letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), the group — consisting of five Democrats and five Republicans — claimed that Washington’s Cuba policy “has been ineffective” ever since its adoption in 1962.

“Other nations trade with Cuba, and their producers benefit from that trade, while U.S. policy places our farmers, workers and companies at a competitive disadvantage,” the letter said.

“It also hinders our ability to interact with the Cuban people by restricting our right to travel to Cuba. We believe the American people can have greater influence on Cuban society by developing a relationship with the Cuban people. That is the only way to influence the peaceful transition to democracy and a market-oriented economy.”

Senators comprising the new group include Max Baucus (D-MT), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Norm Coleman (R-MN), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Michael Enzi (R-WY), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Jim Talent (R-MO).

With the birth of the Senate Working Group on Cuba, both chambers of Congress now have groups committed to a new approach to U.S. policy toward Cuba. In the House of Representatives, the Cuba Working Group — formed a year ago — already has 50 members (see box, page 9).

Yet the Senate’s conciliatory moves toward the Castro regime are being overshadowed by Cuba’s increasing harassment of U.S. diplomats and the recent jailing of 78 dissidents, independent journalists, librarians and leaders of pro-democracy groups who’ve met with Jim Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

After the arrests, Cuban TV accused Cason of “trying to foment the internal counterrevolution” and “organizing, financing and serving as headquarters for activities meant to destabilize and subvert the constitutional order.”

Ricardo Alarcón, head of Cuba’s National Assembly, claimed his government now has enough “evidence” to prosecute all 78 for “conspiring against Cuba.”

Indeed, some of those arrested had also met with visiting members of the House Cuba Working Group only a week earlier. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a leading member of that group, wasted no time introducing a resolution urging Cuba to release all political prisoners at once.

On Mar. 25, Bill Nelson (D-FL) and George Allen (R-VA) did likewise in the Senate. Interestingly, one of those not arrested was Oswaldo Payá, founder of the Varela Project.

Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group, said that by allowing Payá to remain free, Castro is “sowing division within the internal opposition and supporting the argument by some right-wingers in Miami that Oswaldo Payá is a government collaborator.”

Yet if Castro had jailed the famous dissident, he toldCubaNews,“it would quickly result [Payá] being a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Philip Peters, vice-president of the Lexington Institute, said Fidel’s crackdown “certainly spells trouble for Cuba in terms of any opening by the European Union, which was about to let Cuba into the Cotonou Agreement. It has also probably cost some votes in Congress.”

As a result of Cuba’s latest moves, U.S. dip-lomats must now get prior approval to travel outside a 434-square-mile area that includes Havana and its suburbs. Previously, American diplomats had to notify Cuban officials whenever they traveled outside the capital, but no advance approval was necessary.

On Mar. 13, the State Department imposed similar restrictions on diplomats working at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

Neither Dagoberto Rodríguez, chief of that mission, nor his spokesman, Juan Hernández Acen, could be reached for comment. Also unavailable was Cason, who has declined our numerous requests for interviews in both Washington and Havana.

But Wayne Smith, who occupied that post during the Carter administration and is now an outspoken opponent of U.S. policy toward Cuba, criticized Cason for publicizing his meetings with dissidents and holding press conferences to denounce the Castro regime.

“I also meet with dissidents when I go to Cuba, but always in the context of broadening dialogue and trying to improve relations,” said Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. “That’s exactly the opposite of what the U.S. Interests Section is doing now.”

Smith added: “My own sense is that the Bush administration would be delighted to see the Interests Section closed. They don’t have any interest at all in travel between Cuba and the United States or any other kind of normal business exchange. The best way to bring all this to a halt is by provoking a closing of the Interests Section.” But, he concluded, “I don’t think the Cubans in fact will do it, because it’s dawned on them that that’s exactly what the administration wants.”

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and an avid embargo supporter, doesn’t buy a word of Smith’s argument.

“What the Cubans are doing is not a reaction to Jim Cason at all,” he told CubaNews. “I think Castro has been planning to crack down on the dissidents for awhile. Everybody’s looking the other way with Iraq now. This has to do with cleaning house, paving the way for Fidel’s brother to have a smooth takeover, eliminating opposition both outside and within the government. We’re going to see a very difficult time in Cuba, with repression and terror increasing over the next few months.”

To back up his assessment, Suchlicki cited the Mar. 6 appointment of Ramiro Valdés to Cuba’s Council of State.

“As minister of interior, Valdés was Fidel’s right-hand man in repression. He was a real butcher. Now he’s rehabilitated, and he’s one of the 31 members of the Council of State. To me, that’s an indication that Fidel is moving into a very harsh position, no different than what Mao or Stalin did before they died.”

Suchlicki added that Castro’s latest crackdown on dissidents “will put a damper on any idea of normalizing relations with Cuba.”

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