By Kristin Roberts
MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuba’s intense crackdown on dissidents threatens to stymie attempts to ease travel and trade restrictions between the United States and its communist neighbor, U.S. lawmakers, trade specialists and anti-Castro activists said.
Cuba’s quick execution on Friday of three men who hijacked a ferry on April 2 in hopes of reaching the United States only highlights the human rights abuses that embargo supporters have decried for years.
While some lawmakers and trade proponents argue it is now time for more interaction to help open the Cuban economy and society, many say Washington’s response to Cuban president Fidel Castro’s actions must now be to tighten the noose.
“It’s clearly disruptive,” said Robert Muse, a Washington attorney on trade issues. “The attitude that’s dominant at the moment is the more pessimistic attitude that little is going to pass this year, that the year is a legislative write-off.”
Already, the pro-embargo camp has seized on the Cuban president’s actions against 75 dissidents—journalists, human rights activists and economists who received on average 20-year prison sentences on treason charges after one-day trials.
The Cuban American National Foundation, the powerful anti-Castro exile group based in Miami, called for Washington and the international community to “indict” Castro, his brother and anticipated successor Raul Castro, and the “other thugs” who play roles in the Castro government.
Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Santos, adopting the terminology used by the White House in the war against Iraq, called for “regime change” in Cuba.
His proposal to levy criminal charges against Castro appeared tepid in comparison with responses advocated by some in the exile community, pounding their fists in closed-door meetings last week and saying the island should be cut off altogether and remittances from Miami should be halted.
“The situation is too volatile to do anything in the near term,” said an international law attorney in Washington, D.C. and lobbyist for groups seeking eased restrictions.
Even before Friday’s executions, a unanimous U.S. House of Representatives last week condemned the roundup of dissidents, and called for Cuba to release all political prisoners.
The Senate’s working group on the embargo also took its first action—sending a letter to Havana’s interests section in Washington that also condemned the political crackdown.
The U.S. placed an embargo on Cuba in 1960, the year after Castro took power. Restrictions were tightened in 1996 after the Cuban government downed two unarmed U.S. civilian aircraft. In 2000, cash sales of food and medicine were allowed, but Havana did not take advantage of this until after Hurricane Michelle in 2001.
Despite the uproar following Friday’s executions and last week’s dissident sentencings, a Republican Arizona congressman pushing legislation to lift U.S. restrictions on citizens traveling to Cuba said he will still introduce his bill.
Rep. Jeff Flake argued that allowing Americans to travel to Cuba would “punish” Castro more than economic restrictions.
“Right now, Castro has the only microphone. If we allow Americans to travel, more voices are heard and Cubans will understand what they’ve been missing out on,” Flake said.
Beyond travel, some who support easing restrictions say they had expected Congress to take up a measure to allow Cuba to use credit to make food purchases from U.S. companies. Under current restrictions, all food sales must be made in cash.
But lobbyists now doubt that will happen this year.
Trade lawyer Muse said he saw a “notable lack of effort” to advance the Cuban trade financing legislation.
Kirby Jones, a Cuba trade consultant who sponsors meetings in Havana between U.S. businessmen and Cuban officials, said that while he believes intensified tensions between the United States and Cuba is the product of economic restrictions, politicians may be wary to move forward immediately.
“All I know from talking to people is this is not a good time to drop a bill on opening travel to Cuba.”