U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen challenged the Obama administration’s commitment to human rights in Cuba on Thursday, pressing Secretary of State John Kerry on the administration’s plans to cut spending next year on democracy and human rights on the island by 25 percent.
Are human rights a priority for this administration?
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
The State Department has requested $15 million, down from $20 million this year, to pay for assistance to victims of political repression and their families and to strengthen independent Cuban civil society.
“Are human rights a priority for this administration?” Ros-Lehtinen asked.
Kerry’s response: “Of course, they are.”
The four-minute confrontation at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the State Department’s budget was the latest confrontation between members of Congress and the administration over Cuba policy. Both Ros-Lehtinen and her fellow Miami Republican, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, have called the warming relations with Cuba shameful, while Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, both Republican presidential contenders, have accused Obama of making too many concessions to the communist government.
We believe we have a greater chance of changing Cuba than anything that has happened in the last 50 years.
Secretary of State John Kerry
Kerry defended the administration, saying the improvement in relations allows the U.S. to have more diplomats in Cuba and creates opportunities to work in areas of mutual interest.
“In fact,” Kerry said, “we believe we have actually created more opportunities for intervention, more opportunities to make progress. One in four people in Cuba are beginning to work for private enterprise.”
Ros-Lehtinen says that assessment is naive. She cited Cuba’s harsh treatment of dissidents since the announcement in December 2014 of the new relationship, with the reported arrests of more than 8,000 people, many of whom expressed points of view that contrast those of the Cuban government.
Citing the 20th anniversary Wednesday of the downing of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft by a Cuban jet fighter, Ros-Lehtinen also pressed Kerry for a commitment that the administration would seek the extradition of the government officials responsible for the shoot-down, which killed four Miami-based anti-Castro activists.
Kerry did not respond directly, but reiterated that more groups, including non-government agencies, are traveling to Cuba and working directly with the Cuban people more than ever in the past half-century.
“We believe we have a greater chance of changing Cuba than anything that has happened in the last 50 years,” Kerry said. “It didn’t work for 50 years. Nothing changed. Now it is changing.”