Crackdown in Cuba stalls U.S. outreach

Congress was moving toward easing restrictions


MIAMI - Cuba's recent jailing of dozens of dissidents and the execution of three ferry hijackers have stalled what had been an increasingly popular drive in the U.S. Congress to ease trade and travel restrictions on the island nation.

Many advocates of a relaxation of the 4-decade-old embargo, which they argued only increased hardships for ordinary Cubans while doing nothing to dislodge Fidel Castro, said support for change had been building. Conservative lawmakers from farming states were no longer willing to lose out on food sales, they said, while more libertarian-minded members saw the travel ban as an infringement on individual rights.

But the momentum stopped abruptly last week as Congress voted 414-0 for a resolution demanding the immediate release of the 78 imprisoned dissidents. Although many lawmakers remain committed to lifting the embargo, that issue has been trumped by outrage over human rights abuses. The next step, all agree, depends on Castro.

"If the move to end the embargo was like a political campaign, we had a great candidate," said Brian Alexander, executive director of the Cuba Policy Foundation, which has worked with members of Congress to revise U.S. policy. "This dissident roundup is the candidate being caught with the intern. The fear is people will be less inclined to listen to a positive message. Because of the fear, distrust and justifiable outrage, the message of engaging Cuba will be lost."

Relations between the United States and Cuba seem to be worsening with each day. The Cuban government has denounced the United States for giving financial support to dissidents whom it considers to be traitors and for encouraging recent hijackings with the aim of reaching the United States. Bush administration officials, who have denounced the hijackings, countered that the dissidents were part of a homegrown movement and were not on the United States' payroll.

The recent crackdown has led more conservative foes of the Castro government to insist that the embargo stay in place.

Members of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, lawmakers who had been advocating an easing of the embargo, said the dissidents' arrests underscored the need to improve relations with Cuba. "The crackdown happened not under our proposed policy but under the policy we had for 42 years," said Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican member of the working group and sponsor of legislation to ease the travel ban. "We need a lot more American voices in Cuba, not fewer."

Lawmakers worry that anger over the treatment of the dissidents will overcome a more reasoned approach, much as in 1996, when Cuba's downing of two civilian aircraft carrying members of an anti-Castro Cuban-American group led to the revival of the Helms-Burton Act, which called for harsher penalties against Cuba.

Recent steps by the administration indicated a hardening toward Cuba. New U.S. regulations appear to cut back significantly on the "people to people" trips that allowed Americans to visit for conferences and cultural and educational exchanges, a program promoted under the Clinton administration.

U.S. officials said the new rules aimed to curtail abuses by people who were more interested in tourism than seminars.

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