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US Rep. Opposing Cuba Sanctions Expects Democratic Support December 20, 2006

Posted by notapundit in Congress, Politics, US News.
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WASHINGTON (AP)–Rep. William Delahunt, a longtime opponent of the U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba, says he expects the push to end the travel ban will get a boost in the new Democratic-controlled Congress.

Delahunt, D-Mass., fresh from a weekend visit to Cuba with a congressional delegation, said Monday he and other members of the House of Representatives plan hearings early next year after Congress returns to spotlight the issue and to build momentum for their cause.

“If we have hearings, we can increase the pressure for ending the ban,” said Delahunt, a member of the House International Relations Committee. “These will be important hearings.”

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, who was born in Cuba and grew up in Florida, said loosening the travel ban wouldn’t help persuade Cuba to take critical steps such as releasing its political prisoners and legalizing all political parties.

“You have a group of members of Congress who want to unilaterally give the regime what it wants, which is billions of dollars in U.S. trade and tourism,” said Diaz-Balart, a longtime supporter of the four-decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba. “Every year we fight.”

The debate comes as speculation mounts about the health of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 80, who was last seen July 26 before temporarily ceding power to his younger brother Raul Castro after intestinal surgery. U.S. officials have said they believed the elder Castro suffers from inoperable cancer and isn’t expected to live through 2007.

Cuban officials told Delahunt and other visiting lawmakers during the weekend that Castro wasn’t suffering from cancer or any terminal illness and was expected to appear in public soon.

Delahunt’s weekend visit was with the Cuba Working Group, members of Congress who advocate an end to the travel and trade sanctions against the island nation as a means of prodding democratic reforms.

Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., another group member, said its probable first step in the new Congress will be to push legislation to ease restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba to help their families. Hearings are expected early next year, he said. Congress reconvenes on Jan. 4 with its first Democratic majority in 12 years.

“That’s the way you encourage change in Cuba,” said McGovern. “We can accelerate positive change down there and open more political space. Our current policy is a relic from the Cold War.”

McGovern noted that similar bills passed the House and Senate in recent years, but eventually were blocked by Republican leaders like former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

The new Democratic leaders in Congress will be more sympathetic to the push for a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations in hopes of prodding democratic reforms, McGovern and Delahunt said.

“There’s a significant transition going on in Washington with Democrats coming to power,” Delahunt said. “There’s a particular opportunity for dialogue, and now is the time. Clearly, a majority in the House and Senate believe there ought to be a new direction in Cuba.”

The Bush administration has opposed rolling back the embargo aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government and its ailing president.

Even if Congress should approve easing travel sanctions, Diaz-Balart said, President George W. Bush would use his veto to block it.

“It’s true, we don’t have the Republican leadership anymore,” he said. “But we still have George Bush at the White House.”

Julie Sweig, who directs the Latin America Studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, said the Democratic takeover of Congress and Castro’s poor health could help bring change to U.S. policy.

“You can’t minimize the significance of the passing from the stage of Fidel Castro, whether he dies or just lingers,” she said. “So much of our policy has been personalized around him.”

But Sweig said while there is an “unusual window of opportunity” for a new U.S. approach to Cuba, there remain no guarantees of change.

“This is still an administration that does not believe in talking to its adversaries,” she said.

Plus, Cuba and most other international issues pale in comparison to the problems posed by the Iraq war, Sweig said.

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