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US Groups Challenging Washington Cuba Sanctions - 2002-03-31

A coalition of groups advocating an end to the longstanding U.S. economic embargo of Cuba recently held a conference to discuss their views, which run counter to the policy of the Bush Administration. The meeting was held in Miami, where Cuban exiles have traditionally rejected any suggestion that the United States ease sanctions on their nation of birth. The conference, and the reaction to it, drew a sharp contrast between opposing ideas on how best to bring change to communist Cuba.

U.S. Congressman William Delahunt of Massachusetts is one of several American legislators who have traveled to Cuba to assess the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions on the island-nation. He says virtually no one in Cuba, not even pro-democracy dissidents, supports the United States' four-decade-long economic embargo.

"I believe that I have met with every prominent dissident. Almost universally, they describe the embargo as harmful to the Cuban people. It is causing pain," he said.

Opponents of the embargo describe U.S. sanctions as a "Berlin wall" that prevents new ideas and influences from reaching the island. They say the embargo also provides the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro with a convenient excuse for repression and a scapegoat for economic failure.

As a first step, they suggest lifting the travel ban that bars the vast majority of Americans from visiting Cuba. Again, Congressman Delahunt. "It is a fundamental American right to travel. It is my understanding that we [Americans] are allowed to travel to Iran and North Korea. By my calculation, that is two-thirds of the "axis of evil". And we cannot travel to Cuba? That is wrong."

But resistance to any easing of U.S. sanctions is considerable, particularly in Miami, which is home to many exiles who have fled Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Exiles point out that, years ago, many nations steadfastly maintained sanctions against South Africa until apartheid was abolished. Similarly, they say the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba must remain in place until real change comes to the island. Cuban-American Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says those who want to dismantle sanctions while Fidel Castro remains in power are misguided.

"Their focus should not be on trade," she said. "They need to talk about human rights, political rights, and economic rights for all the Cuban people. They need to talk about free speech. They need to have a panel about encouraging a regime and a government that meets the needs and the aspirations of all the Cuban people."

Embargo opponents stress the question is not whether Castro must go, but how best to achieve an end to his rule and the beginning of democracy in Cuba. Arizona Representative Jeff Flake rejects any suggestion that he wants to "cozy up" to Mr. Castro.

"We are not doing this because we believe that Castro is coming around or somehow improving, he said. "We are doing this because we believe he is a bad guy. And we think that every American ought to have the right to see what a mess that man has made of that island. I think we have to get beyond Castro and look at what is the best way to engage the Cuban people. They are going to be transforming pretty soon. I want American ideals down there."

Earlier this year, the United States authorized the limited sale of food and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian needs. Those who want to end sanctions say they hope such sales will be a first step to constructive engagement with the Cuban people. Opponents fear any erosion of U.S. sanctions will inevitably reduce pressure for change on the island.