US move to restore Cuba ties under fire in Congress

WASHINGTON DC, USA – Plans to restore ties with Cuba came under fire Tuesday, February 3, in the first volley of a long battle in the Republican-led Congress amid accusations the Obama administration is conceding too much with few guarantees on human rights.

Potential 2016 White House hopeful Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who has been loudly critical of the change to the decades-old policy, presided over a packed Senate subcommittee hearing to examine the impact of the US policy.

"I have deep reservations and in many instances direct opposition to many of the changes... for the simple reason that I believe that they will not be effective in bringing about the sort of political opening on the island of Cuba that all of us desire," Rubio told the committee.

He pointed out that Cuba was the only country in the Western hemisphere which has not had a free election in the past 15 years, with power passing from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul.

"The notion that somehow we should be more patient with Cuba than all these other societies is quite frankly unfair and offensive," Rubio said.

US President Barack Obama has urged Congress to lift the crippling US embargo, imposed in 1962, which has been a major source of tension between the Cold War-era rivals.

But some US lawmakers say Obama has conceded too much to President Raul Castro without securing guarantees of political change.

Leading Cuban activists testified in person to the panel about continuing human rights abuses in the Caribbean island.

"Cuba continues to be a country with a one-party government where fundamental freedoms that are an absolute right in North American society are crimes against what they regard as 'state security," said Berta Soler, president of the Cuban Ladies in White.

"While these conditions prevail, it is not possible to speak of a willingness to change on the part of the Castroite regime," she insisted.

But activist and journalist Miriam Leiva, the wife of the late Cuban dissident Oscar Manuel Espinosa Chepe, called for the US embargo to be lifted.

"The American policy towards the Cuban government has dis-served it for 56 years, so it must be changed," she said.

No illusions

The top US diplomat for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, stressed the administration was "under no illusions about the continued barriers to internationally recognized freedoms that remain for the Cuban people." 

But she maintained the half-century freeze in ties and the US economic embargo "though rooted in the best intentions, failed to empower the Cuban people, and isolated us from our democratic partners in this hemisphere."

Instead, the Cuban authorities had used it "as a rationale for restrictions on its people. As a result, unfortunately and unintentionally, those most deprived were the Cuban people," Jacobson said.

Jacobson, who led the first negotiations on restoring diplomatic ties last month in Havana, stressed the initiative was aimed at promoting democratic change in Cuba and that the US would not sacrifice any principles as part of the new policy.

Senator Robert Menendez however said 18 months of secret negotiations had led to a "bad deal for the Cuban people." 

"While it may have been done with the best of intentions, in my view we've compromised bedrock principles for virtually no concessions," Menendez said.

The negotiations are due to resume this month in Washington.

"We have only begun the official talks on normalizing relations – which will take considerably longer than the first step, which is the re-establishment of diplomatic relations," Jacobson said. –