By Pablo Bachelet | McClatchy Newspapers
Rep. Albio Sires gets personal when he asks fellow lawmakers to reject efforts to ease economic sanctions against his native Cuba.
“I just tell them about my story,” the New Jersey Democrat said.
Sires, who spent the first 11 years of his life in the town of Bejucal near Havana, tells them how, after Fidel Castro took over, English-language books were burned and he was forced to march in parades toting a Czech-made submachine gun.
Sires’ pitch is growing all the more important as opponents of U.S. sanctions on Cuba step up efforts to ease them, hoping that with Castro ailing and Democrats running Congress their chances of victory will improve.
Keep the sanctions in place until the Castro government makes significant political and human rights reforms, Sires tells his fellow Congress members.
The 56-year-old lawmaker said he’d made this pitch to most of the 55-member freshman legislative class, underscoring the kind of determined lobbying by Cuban-American legislators and allies that’s made them confident they can beat back critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Sires is the new kid on the block, a first-time lawmaker joining more seasoned veterans of Cuba-policy battles - Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz - in leading a campaign in the House of Representatives to stay the course on Havana.
Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., are carrying the load in the Senate. Sires holds the House seat that Menendez once had.
Sires and Wasserman Schultz, together with other pro-sanctions legislators, have drawn up lists of lawmakers and their positions on Cuba. Those who are new to the issue or undecided get a full briefing, with Sires focusing on the freshmen. Those who’ve voted against easing sanctions in the past are pulled aside for a brief chat to make sure their position hasn’t changed.
Sires and Wasserman Schultz belong to the Cuba Democracy Caucus, created in 2004, which brings together 18 House members and seven senators, with more expected to join in the coming weeks, Wasserman Schultz said.
Caucus members said the group was more active than ever, sending out letters to colleagues, explaining members’ positions on Cuba.
Wasserman Schultz and other caucus members think that they can win the legislative battles this year but they recognize that it won’t be easy.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s office counts six Cuba-related bills filed since January, including proposals that would lift restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island and facilitate agricultural exports. An initiative that would lift a ban on U.S. tourist visits to Cuba got more than 70 co-sponsors.
Mavis Anderson, with the Latin America Working Group, an advocacy organization that pushes for more engagement with Cuba, said supporters of a tough position on Cuba had lobbied aggressively but that she thought the tide was shifting.
“I don’t think they can roll over the majority, which really sees the ineffectiveness and incorrectness of this policy,” she said.
Supporters and opponents of U.S. policy on Cuba said that repealing restrictions on Cuban-American travel, widely criticized as separating families, stood the best chance of succeeding.
“Opponents are doing their best to pull the heartstrings of members,” Wasserman Schultz said. While sharing those concerns, she said, “we try to explain the complexity of the issue. ... For most of my colleagues, it requires an education.”
Supporters of sanctions said a policy change now would let Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro, consolidate his hold on the government and would remove any incentive to make changes.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Washington director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which lobbies to keep the sanctions, compares the moment to the final stretch of a marathon.
“Potentially, we have 50 yards left,” he said of Fidel Castro’s ailment. “If you’re going to change your shoes in those last 50 yards, you have to feel 150 percent sure that those shoes are not going to cramp you up.”
The pro-sanctions group is adjusting its message to the reality of a Democratic majority in Congress, focusing on human-rights and labor abuses by the communist government.
“I think we win once we tie it to the abuse of human rights, once we tie it to the freedom to express yourself, once we call for elections, for the release of political prisoners on the island,” Sires said.