Debate Over U.S. Sanctions on Cuba Draws Lawmakers, Activists

America's economic embargo of Cuba must end and U.S. tourists allowed to visit the communist island while Fidel Castro is alive to pave the way for political change and rebuild ties between the Cold War enemies, speakers at a conference on U.S.-Cuba policy said Thursday.

U.S. Reps. William Delahunt, D-Mass., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., were among a cadre of former U.S. diplomats, academics and activists addressing some 300 conference attendees, most of them Cuban-Americans from South Florida.

The panelists argued the decades-old embargo has not resulted in democratic change in Cuba's 43-year-old government and the U.S. should change its policy, beginning by allowing Americans to travel to the island and by easing or eliminating laws that restrict U.S. companies from doing business with Cuba.

"Everyone that I met in Cuba supports lifting the travel ban," said Delahunt, referring to visits he had with dissidents on the island. "You let Americans travel there and you'll see a private sector thrive."

About 40 demonstrators in favor of maintaining the U.S. sanctions gathered outside the Biltmore Hotel in this city southwest of Miami, chanting "Traitors!" to conference participants. Some held signs that read "Helping Castro Is A Crime" and "Engaging Castro Is Supporting Terrorism."

But speakers inside touted the number of Cuban-Americans at the event saying it is a sign the area's traditionally devout anti-Castro Cuban exile population is opening up to alternative arguments on the embargo.

"Today we are witnessing the end of a myth. There is no longer a monolith of opinion in South Florida," said Ambassador Sally Grooms Cowal, former U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago and head of the Cuba Policy Foundation.

Not far from the gathering, U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, staunch supporters of the U.S. sanctions against Cuba, held a news conference along with a handful of former Cuban dissidents.

The Republican Cuban-American lawmakers from South Florida dismissed suggestions that public opinion among exiles was changing and said easing the embargo would only serve to prop up the communist government at the expense of the Cuban people.

"There are economic interests that are seeking to do business with the dictatorship and they would like the dictatorship to survive the dictator," Diaz-Balart said.

Under current U.S. law, Americans are only permitted to travel to Cuba under certain conditions and are not allowed to spend over a certain amount of money while there. U.S. companies are allowed to sell food and medicine to Cuba, but the purchases must not be financed with private or public U.S. funds.

While U.S. law also requires that Cuba release all political prisoners, allow freedom of the press and hold elections for the embargo to end, a coalition of mostly Republican lawmakers from farm states and some Democrats have been pushing to thwart the embargo by passing bills to stop enforcing it or allow private financing of purchases made by Cuba.

"They are working to obtain financing so they can consolidate a system, which prohibits all dialogue, which prohibits any discussion of ideas [or] debates and which prohibits free elections," Diaz-Balart said. "We disagree with that."

President Bush has said he will not sign a bill weakening the embargo, but proponents of easing the embargo said the pressure in an election year to pass such a bill would be considerable.

"We represent the majority of members in the House and Senate," Delahunt said. "Working with the Cuban-American community we can make a difference."

Diaz-Balart acknowledged the push is intensifying, but said there are enough lawmakers who would vote against such measures, and if not, Bush would veto them.

Cowal said the United States is losing an estimated $1.2 billion annually in potential farm sales to Cuba. She said open trade would strengthen the position of those in the Cuban government who may vie for a leadership position after Castro dies.

"Engagement now, while Castro is alive, will prepare Cuba for democracy after he's [dead]," she said. "The real question is how long do we have to wait, how much economic pain are we going to bring the American people?"

Ros-Lehtinen said what is most important is the condition of Cubans under Castro.

"For 42 years every other country has traded with Castro and Castro has not changed his stripes," she said. "Lifting the [sanctions] is a nonsensical debate. There are bigger issues there."