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US Legislators Urge Lifting Cuban Trade, Travel Embargoes

Ten U.S. lawmakers who just returned from a trip to Havana are calling for engagement with Cuba in place of the trade and travel embargo the United States has imposed on Cuba for years. The House members say six months after ailing President Fidel Castro gave governing power to his brother Raul, it is apparent that little in communist Cuba will change unless U.S. policy does. VOA's Marissa Melton reports from Washington.

Members of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group have proposed legislation to lift economic restrictions on Cuba. They have been explaining to Washington audiences why they back the normalization of relations with the poor island nation.

Democrat William Delahunt of Massachusetts told the InterAmerican Dialogue research center the trip itself showed that many in Congress disagree with existing U.S. policy on Cuba.

"I would submit that our paramount motive in going to Cuba was to demonstrate just simply by our physical presence, given the size of our delegation, that many in this country, particularly in the U.S. Congress, want dialogue," he said. "And that obviously is not the position of the administration."

Washington forbids U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba or spend money on Cuban products. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations

Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona said U.S. policy of shutting Cuba out has not worked to oust the island's communist government or end human rights abuses. He said Washington should instead try focusing on engaging Havana with trade and dialogue.

"We're losing influence," he said. "We could have influence in Havana, but we are very much on the sidelines while this transition is taking place."

A few blocks away, Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts expressed a similar opinion to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said better relations with Cuba would help some political dissidents.

"My own view is that if you could normalize relations, lift the travel restrictions, have better relations with the country, you'd remove an excuse the Cuban government uses to justify the arrest of these political dissidents," he said.

But groups supporting the embargoes on Cuba insist the restrictions can still help push the island toward democracy. Camilla Ruiz of the Cuban American National Foundation says the travel and trade bans should be loosened gradually in exchange for positive changes in Cuba, such as holding national elections or supporting freedom of press and religion. She says completely eliminating the embargoes would send the wrong message to Cuban officials.

"If they're not willing to move now, when they're not getting our economic and diplomatic support, why would opening up the floodgates and allowing tourists to pour money in there, and allowing companies to extend economic assistance and credits and financing, why would that be an incentive for change," she said.

She says such a move would only serve to legitimize the existing style of Cuban government, rather than spark the change U.S. officials want to see.