Politics & Government

Open Cuba to U.S. tourists, leading dissident urges

WASHINGTON — A high-octane effort to let U.S. tourists visit Cuba got a major endorsement Thursday from one of the island's leading dissidents, who suggested that "along with suitcases, Bermuda shorts and sun block, support, solidarity and freedom could come, too."

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, who this week drew the attention of President Barack Obama, wrote in an essay to Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that lifting the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba "could bring more results in the democratization of Cuba than the indecisive performance of Raul Castro."

"Both peoples," she wrote of Cubans and Americans, "would come out winners." Berman read portions of Sanchez's essay at an impassioned House of Representatives hearing on whether to lift the travel ban, noting that both critics and supporters of the decades-old ban had cited Sanchez's recent beating and detention at the hands of Cuban security forces.

"Three, that's the number of Cuban agents who threw a blogger head-first into an unmarked black car and beat her for speaking about freedom," said Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., dubbing the effort to lift the ban a "Castro bailout, a bailout for beatings, oppression, rape, torture, corruption and tyranny."

Sanchez, an increasingly brassy blogger, got even more attention Thursday when she got a response from Obama, to whom she had posed seven questions in an effort to engage in a bit of "popular diplomacy." She also posted questions to Raul Castro, who had yet to reply.

Obama's answers amounted to a standard restatement of his administration's policies on Cuba — a desire for more bilateral and people-to-people contacts, in the hope they would lead to improved human rights, while insisting on "actions by the Cuban government."

Thursday's hearing — the first time a full committee has delved into the hotly contested issue of lifting the restrictions, first imposed in 1962 — came as proponents suggested they've got their best opportunity to date to scrap the ban, which prevents American tourists from spending money in Cuba. Berman made it clear he plans to continue pushing, perhaps scheduling a hearing on legislation as soon as next spring.

"I don't want just a hearing, I want to eliminate the travel ban," Berman said after the hearing. "I think there's a better chance than ever before."

Opponents of lifting the ban suggest the votes aren't there to pass the legislation. They pointed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's remarks Thursday, in which she told a press conference that she's always favored lifting the ban but suggested it's not a priority for the House.

The legislation could face an even tougher reception in the Senate, where a number of senators have pledged to block it.

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