US lawmakers call for change in policy toward Cuba

Campaign News | Monday, 18 December 2006

Delegation pushes for end to long standoff

HAVANA, Dec. 17 (Xinhua) -- Ten visiting U.S. lawmakers on Sunday called on the U.S. government to change its policy toward Cuba and open dialogue with the South American country.

"We unanimously believe that the United States should respond positively to the proposal made by Raul Castro in his speech of Dec. 2," said a joint statement read by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake.

The statement said no result could be achieved without the application of diplomatic efforts, adding that dialogue between the two countries would not be easy.

"No one should be under the illusion that a negotiation with Cuba would be easy, or that (there would be) results at all," the statement said.

Raul Castro, the temporary leader, on Dec. 2 called for negotiations between Cuba and the United States at a military parade, at which Fidel Castro failed to appear.

The United States, however, has showed no interest in negotiating, saying that negotiations are impossible until there is a sign of political liberalization in Cuba.

The two countries do not have full diplomatic relations, and the United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba.

The lawmakers arrived in Havana on Friday in the largest U.S. legislative mission to visit the country during Castro's reign. The visit ended on Sunday.

Congress Mission to Cuba Agrees US Policy Must Change

Havana, Dec 17 (Prensa Latina) The bipartisan US Congress delegation led by Representative Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) said "it is time for the United States to enter a dialogue with Cuba."

After a three-day visit to the island during which they held talks with seven high Cuban officials, including government, political and economic figures, Flake said to foreign and local media that they "unanimously believe the United States should respond positively" to the proposal made by Cuban first Vice President, Raul Castro on December 2.

The bipartisan group, made up of four Republicans and six Democrats, took turns making statements that mainly agreed on the need to lift the ban on travel to Cuba and the restrictions currently pending on the remittances made by Cuban Americans to their relatives in the island.

Greg Meeks, Democrat for New York, said what he learned in this visit is that US foreign policy must change not only concerning Iraq but also regarding our neighbor 90 miles away, on which we have imposed cruel restrictions for almost half a century and to no effect.

This is a golden opportunity to begin a dialogue, said Meeks.

The US and Cuba should be consulting regularly on migration issues, to protect national security and to save lives, as well as on how to fight drug trafficking, said Flake?s written statement.

Other topics brought up by US Congresspeople was Cuba?s offshore oil exploration, the possibilities to expand trade and other legal issues.

William Delahunt, Democrat for Massachusetts described the visit as very important and talks as very positive. Besides the issues in which we may differ, there are many things that bring us together, he said.

Several congresspeople deemed this as the first of many future visits and Representative Jeff Flake said "we have to change and move forward."

The mission held talks with Felipe Perez Roque, Minister of Foreign Relations, Ricardo Alarcón, President of the National Assembly, Yadira Garcia, Minister of Basic Industries, Francisco Soberon, President of the Central Bank, Fernando Remirez, International Relations Chief of the Communist Party?s Central Committee and Pedro Alvarez, Director of Alimport.

Other meetings were held with Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino and diplomats accredited in Havana.

Congressmen in Cuba seek new path

From the Chicago Tribune newspaper

HAVANA -- The largest U.S. congressional delegation in years arrived in Havana on Friday to push for an end to four decades of hostility between Cuba and the United States.

The visit by the 10 legislators--six Democrats and four Republicans--comes less than two weeks after Cuba's interim leader Raul Castro said in a major speech that he is willing to open negotiations with the United States on an equal and fair footing.

The trip also comes after Democrats recently won a majority in the U.S. Congress for the first time since 1994, a political shift that could lower obstacles to easing the U.S. trade embargo against the island.

In recent years, President Bush had tightened sanctions against Cuba in an effort to topple its one-party state.

But many Democrats and some moderate Republicans say the policy hasn't worked. They argue that increased American trade and travel to Cuba is the best way to influence the island's future.

"We sense that this is an important time and we hope to be able to meet with officials here and others and hopefully launch a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is leading the congressional delegation.

A second delegation member, Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.), said a "significant majority" in the U.S. Congress supports engaging in "dialogue" with Cuba even though "we will continue to have profound differences with the Cuban government."

But Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, said earlier this week that the Bush administration is not prepared to open talks with Havana until the Cuban leadership shows a commitment to a peaceful transition to democracy.

He said Raul Castro has increased repression against opposition activists since he became interim leader in late July after Fidel Castro's illness.

"The regime has actually become harder and more orthodox," Shannon told reporters in Washington.

Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group, said the Democrats' electoral victory in November coupled with Raul Castro's ascension to the top leadership post provides an opportunity for a shift in U.S. policy.

Now gravely ill, Fidel Castro has made anti-Americanism a cornerstone of Cuban foreign policy. But Raul Castro, Cuba's longtime defense minister, has much to gain by improving relations with the U.S. "Fidel is the hard-liner, but with Raul it is more ambiguous," Erikson said.

The Cuban exile community is divided over whether to ease or maintain sanctions.

South Florida's three Cuban-American congressional representatives strongly support Bush's efforts to isolate Cuba. But an umbrella group of 12 Cuban exile organizations called this month for easing restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity for Cubans of different ideologies and positions to try to come up with a peaceful solution," said Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami exile group.

Hernandez said it is a "mistake" for U.S. officials to dismiss Raul Castro's entreaties.

During the three-day visit, delegation members are scheduled to meet with senior Cuban officials, including a possible Saturday meeting with Raul Castro.,1,6382213.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed&ctrack=1&cset=true

US Congress group heads to Cuba

From the Cape Cod Times newspaper

U.S. Rep. William Delahunt will be among a group of 10 Republican and Democratic congressmen traveling to Cuba tomorrow in what they hope will become the first step in normalizing relations.

"It's time to engage in discussion about issues that separate Cuba and the U.S.," said Delahunt, D-Mass., a strong critic of the Bush administration's policies toward the island nation.

Delahunt said the 10-member delegation is expected to return Sunday after meeting with Cuba's legislative and economic leaders. It will be the largest contingent of U.S. officials to visit Cuba in recent memory.

All are members of the Cuba Working Group, a 20-member bipartisan study group that opposes some U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Members of the group have previously described U.S. policy toward Cuba as a failure for more than four decades.

Normalizing relations with Cuba "presents multiple opportunities for us. There are an abundance of economic opportunities for Americans in Cuba, including for businesspeople and farmers, Delahunt said.

Some large Midwestern agricultural concerns already do business in Cuba, earning an estimated $1 billion a year, he said.

But at the same time there are "administrative barriers and roadblocks," that prevent other American businesspeople from tapping a market in Cuba, he said.

Lifting the trade embargo could mean opportunities for smaller businesses as well as farmers in Delahunt's congressional district, which includes the Cape and Islands. His office has fielded queries from cranberry growers and small dairy farmers who have looked at the potential market in Cuba for their goods.

Delahunt said next year the Democratic-controlled Congress will likely pass legislation to ease travel restrictions for U.S. residents with relatives in Cuba. Under current U.S. policy, those with relatives in Cuba may visit only once every few years, a policy Delahunt describes as "cruel and ridiculous."

Delahunt said Congress will also ease regulations on restrictions on money transfers sent to Cubans, now limited to $300 per Cuban household in a three-month period, according to the U.S. State Department's Web site.

The money must be sent through State Department-certified institutions.

In return, however, members of the bipartisan delegation will be looking for evidence that Cuba will "give political status to dissidents and democratic activists," Delahunt said.

Delahunt, a member of the House International Relations Committee, is co-chairman of the Cuba working group with U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

"We feel it is timely to make an effort to determine whether there is the political will - on the part of the Cubans - to initiate a real dialogue," Delahunt said.

He said the visit is unrelated to the recent olive branch extended by Raul Castro, brother of the ailing Fidel Castro.

Earlier this month the younger Castro - who has served as interim president since his brother underwent surgery in July - proposed talks with the U.S. to ease travel restrictions and bring an end to the trade embargo first imposed by the U.S. in 1961.

The Bush administration soundly rejected the Cuban overture.

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