By DAVID LIGHTMAN | Washington Bureau Chief | ctnow.com
After Castro’s Latest Crackdown, Few Members Of Congress Calling For Sanctions To Be Eased
WASHINGTON—Since his Peace Corps days in the 1960s, Chris Dodd has maintained that the way to promote democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean is by “spreading information.”
He has spent his Senate career as a fervent advocate of opening up dictatorships to ideas, trade, political dialogue and travel, and has slowly made some progress.
Dodd, D-Conn., had big hopes this year to build on last year’s momentum for his bid to engage and open up Cuba. But Fidel Castro has frustrated and frozen that effort.
“It’s a setback in terms of momentum,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute.
Over the past few weeks, Cuban officials have imprisoned 75 dissidents, including physicians, economists and journalists, for six to 28 years. Many were subjected to quick trials at which they were accused of conspiring with American officials to undermine the Castro regime.
Castro stoked even more outrage when his government executed three men who hijacked a ferry trying to come to the United States.
Dodd joined the chorus of U.S. officials condemning the crackdown. “The arrests and show trials of these individuals are well beyond acceptable norms of governance,” he told the Senate last month, “and call into question the very legitimacy of the Cuban state.”
But he still saw hope.
“It speaks volumes that thousands of ordinary Cubans have been willing to publicly petition their government seeking change,” Dodd said of the dissidents.
The U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with Cuba and for more than 40 years has imposed a variety of economic sanctions on its neighbor. Changing that policy could accelerate changes in Cuba, Dodd argued.
“Our 40-year-long isolationist policy towards Cuba has played a major role keeping the government of Fidel Castro in power, and has created a siege mentality,” he said, pointing out that Castro has been able to blame the U.S. for shortages of food and medicine.
But Dodd, who served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, is a lonely public voice. There are still members of Congress seeking to ease sanctions, but as Peters said, “They probably have lost votes” among their usual supporters.
Members hoping to engage Cuba may find “this crackdown has wrecked the foundation of their relationships. They’ll be much more cool to Cuba than before,” Peters said.
Dodd, who had hoped this would be the year he could attract more of a Senate crowd, has been pushing his “Building Bridges to Cuba” plan, which would have granted exceptions to U.S. sanctions. It would have made it easier for American farmers and businesses to sell food, medicine and agricultural products to Cuba, and would have made it simpler to get American financing for their sales.
The hope came from several sources. 2003 was the year Dodd’s nemesis, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, had retired after 30 years. Helms was a hero in the anti-Castro community, and his clout made it nearly impossible for Dodd to make much progress.
Replacing Helms was the scholarly, more collegial Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind. There was also momentum from last year, when former President Carter’s visit included an uncensored televised address to the Cuban people.
And there was increasing evidence that the U.S. was working with dissident and human rights groups to encourage human rights.
Instead, the Bush administration is now weighing new steps to punish Cuba, and anti-Castro lawmakers seem more resolute than ever.
“By punishing his people for expressing their consciences, the Cuban dictator once again proves he has none,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn. “Now is the time for all Americans to stand united against Castro’s crimes and against any weakening of the sanctions against Cuba.”
“Why would you want to reward the Castro regime by lifting an embargo?” asked Sen. George Allen, R-Va.
The sanctions represent more than an economic statement; to Allen, Lieberman and others, U.S. policy is a moral statement that Castro is a monster who cannot be treated rationally.
“No matter what we do, Castro keeps falling into his old patterns,” said Dennis Hays, executive vice president of the Cuban-American National Foundation. “He just keeps taking without giving. Sen. Dodd keeps trying to engage, but it always fails.”
Dodd is frustrated, close aides say. He knows better than most lawmakers the value of patience; he waited 12 years to get his parental and family leave bill passed.
But he also recognizes when his momentum is stalled.
Castro went on Cuban TV for three hours last week to blast the “[U.S.] government and the terrorist Mafia” for his country’s dissidents. Pope John Paul II and the European Union condemned Castro’s actions. A U.S. ambassador this week walked out of a United Nations meeting to protest Cuba’s re-election to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Dodd’s not sure of his next move. “I’m thinking about a lot of options,” he said.
He may have a while to think, said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I. “Nobody wins in the Senate on this issue now,” Chafee said. “The whole thing is a setback.”