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US Congressional Delegation Visits Cuba Hoping For Change December 16, 2006

Posted by notapundit in Congress, World News.
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HAVANA (AP)–Ten U.S. lawmakers arrived in Cuba Friday, hoping to spark a dialogue with communist leaders following leadership shifts on the island and in the U.S. Congress that open new possibilities for change in U.S. policies.

“I think that there is more momentum to move ahead than we have had in a while,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

Flake said the group was the largest official congressional delegation to visit the island since the 1959 Cuban revolution.

The visit comes with Cuba’s longtime leader Fidel Castro still ailing and out of sight and one month before the Democratic Party takes control of the U.S. Congress.

Defense Minister Raul Castro has twice offered to discuss his country’s differences with U.S. authorities since late July, when his older brother Fidel provisionally ceded his powers to him following intestinal surgery.

The Republican administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has rejected the offer, but some lawmakers think there is no harm in talking.

“I think that there is a significant majority in the U.S. Congress that believes it is time to engage in dialogue,” said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass, who is heading the delegation with Flake.

Although the U.S. lawmakers reportedly have requested to see Raul Castro, there was no immediate word whether such a meeting would take place before the group leaves Sunday afternoon.

The Bush administration has said it won’t hold a dialogue with Cuban officials until the island holds free and competitive elections and releases the roughly 300 political prisoners rights groups say are held here.

In recent years, the Bush administration has intensified the embargo and other policies aimed at squeezing the island’s economy and undermining Cuba’s communist leaders.

The Bush administration in the autumn announced it would set aside an additional $80 million to promote a transition to a U.S.-style democracy in Cuba.

Communist officials resent the funding, which largely goes to dissident support operations in Florida and Washington, groups they consider to be “mercenary” and “counterrevolutionary.” They insist there will be no transition on the island after Fidel Castro is gone, but rather a continuation of the current economic and political systems with a collective leadership in charge.

On the eve of the congressional visit, the Communist Party newspaper Granma published a lengthy editorial lambasting U.S. funding of Cuban opposition groups.

That editorial addressed the congressional investigation requested by Flake and Delahunt, which concluded that the U.S. Agency for International Development failed to consistently oversee spending on Cuban groups, which spent the money on such things as cashmere sweaters and chocolate, and that coordination with the State Department was ineffective at times.

The party newspaper also criticized the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana for distributing books, medicine, clothes and shortwave radios to Cubans, saying the congressional report confirms that the U.S. Interests Section “acts like the central barracks of the counterrevolution.”

The lawmakers will meet with Michael Parmly, the head of the U.S. mission, on Sunday. Friday’s agenda includes meetings with the head of Cuba’s food import company Alimport; Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo, is looking to expand U.S. food exports to Cuba.

They also plan to meet National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Canadian and European diplomats and the head of Cuba’s basic industries ministry.

The other U.S. representatives in the delegation include Republicans Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Michael Conaway, R-Texas, as well as Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., and Jane Harman, D-Calif., Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. and Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

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