WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration's decision to let a New England Little League team visit Cuba next week has irked Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart — provoking a sharp rebuke from a Vermont senator who says the boys should be allowed to "play some baseball.''
Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, asked fellow lawmakers to a Capitol Hill meeting last month to discuss what he called the ''very troubling granting'' of a travel visa to the Twin State Peregrines, a 14-member group of 11- and 12-year-olds from Vermont and New Hampshire. The team, along with six chaperones, heads to Cuba next Saturday for a nine-day trip.
In a statement Friday, Diaz-Balart said such trips run counter to U.S. policy, which has sought to isolate and weaken the Cuban government.
''Sporting events may be interpreted as diplomatic gestures even when they are not meant to be,'' Diaz-Balart said. "And a sporting event is not an appropriate way to respond to the ongoing torture of political prisoners Yuselin Ferrera, Nelson Aguiar and many others.''
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, fired back. ''He should pick on someone his own size,'' he said.
"If the president can go to China at taxpayers' expense, these kids ought to be able to go on a privately paid trip to Cuba to play some baseball,'' Leahy said in a statement.
Leahy added that "the fact that the Bush Administration, which tries to make travel to Cuba nearly impossible, decided it had no basis to deny the team's request shows how far off-base these critics are.''
Diaz-Balart invited members of the pro-embargo Cuba Democracy Caucus to a meeting last month with officials from the State Department and the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to talk about the issue.
Diaz-Balart noted that the media had ''sadly'' not asked him about the ''torture of 21-year-old dissident Yuselin Ferrera,'' whose case he took up on the House floor in June.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department declined comment on Diaz-Balart's concerns and said he could neither confirm nor deny that the team was issued a license to travel because the licenses are protected by the Trade Secrets Act.
The team is named after the northern peregrine falcon that migrates to Cuba each winter.
The trip was dreamed up by the team's head coach, Tim Levin, a nature writer who fell in love with Cuba on a 1993 assignment for Audubon magazine.
According to the team website, they'll stay at the Salesian Sisters' convent and school in Penalver, outside Havana.
Levin's son and about a dozen other kids will play at least 10 games against Cuban teams.
''They'll get to play baseball with kids who love baseball as much as they do,'' Levin said. "This is between children — child to child — nothing to do with whether you support one thing or another.''