By Rafael Lorente | Washington Bureau | Sun Sentinel
Even as activists from across the country gathered in the Capital on Wednesday to protest U.S. sanctions against Cuba, pro-embargo members of Congress announced the formation of a new group that will work to further isolate Fidel Castro’s government.
The new group, the Congressional Cuba Democracy Caucus, aims to focus attention on human rights violations in Cuba and on the fledgling dissident movement that is attempting to challenge Castro’s rule.
“The members of this caucus will show the people of Cuba our continued commitment to democracy and human rights,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.
The caucus also wants to fight continued attempts to loosen current sanctions on travel and commerce.
“We are very cognizant that unrestricted U.S. tourism to Cuba would provide billions of dollars to the dictatorship,” said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.
Among those joining Martinez and Diaz-Balart at Wednesday’s press conference were Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., as well as Republican representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, and Connie Mack of Fort Myers. Among the Democrats were Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Weston and Bob Menendez of New Jersey.
But just four blocks away in a ballroom of the Hyatt Regency hotel, more than 700 activists gathered to hear other members of Congress talk about legislation that would repeal travel restrictions to the island. One of those members said that those who support sanctions against Cuba are organizing because they are worried about losing ground in the fight.
“It’s in response to this,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., as he left the Hyatt ballroom. “They look at a group like this and they say, `Hey, this issue is slipping away from us.’”
The battle over U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba has intensified in recent years as agricultural interests have fought, mostly successfully, to be allowed to sell their products to Cuba. At the same time, other activists have organized previously scattered efforts to open travel and commerce with Cuba.
They have met fierce resistance from many of South Florida’s Cuban-Americans who want to continue isolating Cuba in the hopes of damaging Castro’s ability to govern. The Bush administration has been a strong supporter of sanctions, and last year tightened rules relating to travel.
Currently, only Cuban-Americans with families on the island and certain groups of other Americans, including journalists, are legally permitted to visit Cuba. As a result of tough new regulations imposed last year by the Bush administration, Cuban-Americans are allowed to visit the island only once every three years, instead of once a year.
U.S. law also restricts most commerce with Cuba with the exception of sales of food and medicine.
Among the 700 activists at the Hyatt were people from South Florida to Alaska who are angry about the travel restrictions and other sanctions.
“I came here as an American, as an American who demands that my rights as a citizen be respected,” said Isidro Borja, of Miami. “I left Cuba because those rights were not being respected.”