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At House hearing, two sides debate U.S. ban on travel to Cuba

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

At a tempestuous hearing Thursday, one House member after another criticized a growing campaign to lift the ban on American tourists traveling to Cuba. The move would reward a regime that oppresses its own people, lawmakers declared, pointing to the recent assault on Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger and government critic, by suspected state security agents.

The beating showed that "the Cuban regime has not unclenched its fist," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"Now is not the time to change policy and start appeasing and funding the Castro clan," said Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), citing Sánchez's case.

There was just one problem with making Sánchez the poster child for the travel ban: She opposes it.

Halfway through the hearing, the committee's chairman, Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), produced a letter he had received from the prominent blogger. "An opening of travel for Americans could bring more results in the democratization of Cuba than the indecisive performance of Raúl Castro," she wrote, referring to Cuba's president.

With Cuba having receded as a Cold War security threat, the country's human rights record is now at the center of U.S. policy toward the island. But as Thursday's hearing showed, lawmakers and even Cuban dissidents appear sharply divided on how to bring about change in the hemisphere's oldest dictatorship.

Supporters of lifting the travel ban think the move would loosen the communist government's grip by bringing in a flood of American tourists spreading democratic ideas. That argument was advanced Thursday by a prominent supporter of Cuban political prisoners, Miriam Leiva, testifying from Havana.

"Many thousands of Americans visiting Cuba would benefit our society," Leiva said, her face appearing on two video screens that loomed over the room in the Rayburn House Office Building. "Firstly, through the free flow of ideas, and further, by pressing the government to open up self-employment to provide goods and services, such as renting rooms, because the capacities in the hotels would be surpassed."

In the audience, a group of older men, wearing fist-size white buttons showing how many years they had spent in Cuban prisons, shook their heads and muttered. Berta Antúnez, the sister of a longtime Cuban political prisoner, rejected Leiva's arguments.

"For years, European, Canadian and Latin American tourists have traveled to Cuba without having any impact on the Cuban reality" but still filling government coffers, said Antúnez, who testified in person. She sat at a table with witnesses including James Cason, a former chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba who favors the ban, and retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a Clinton administration anti-drug official who wants it scrapped.

Berman says those who support lifting the ban have their best chance in years to get rid of it, thanks to Democratic control of the White House and Congress and backing from a wide range of business, agricultural and other groups. He says the House may act on legislation by the spring.

But many lawmakers -- including Democrats -- say they fear such a change could help prop up the Castro brothers, Raúl and his predecessor, Fidel.


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