WASHINGTON – The recent jailing of Cuban dissidents and the execution of hijackers by dictator Fidel Castro has spurred a range of responses in Washington — from calling for regime change to pushing even harder for removing trade and travel embargoes on the Caribbean island nation.
But political insiders say it is unlikely that moves to ease current restrictions on Cuba (search) will get anywhere following Castro’s latest human rights crackdown.
In fact, when senior officials of the Bush administration said this week that they were “reviewing” current U.S.-Cuban policies, they were likely looking at tightening curbs on travel, trade and remittances, said one anti-Castro lawmaker.
“I’m optimistic that President Bush is going to do a top-to-bottom review of U.S.-
Cuba policy,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., (search) told Foxnews.com. Ros-Lehtinen said she expected an announcement regarding new measures, and even changes to that policy, soon.
Since the United States launched the war against Iraq, Castro has jailed 78 journalists and political dissidents and handed out sentences of up to 28 years for challenging his rule. He also executed three people for trying to hijack a ferryboat to reach the United States.
Political experts said this week the administration is looking at a number of ways to send a harsh rebuke to Castro, including tougher enforcement of the travel ban, and the withholding of the $1 billion in annual remittances sent from Cuban-Americans to their families back home.
“Whatever changes and recommendations [Bush] will make will have an impact on eliminating the money that Castro receives and will improve the lives of dissidents and opposition leaders who have suffered the brunt of Castro’s dictatorship,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
When pressed on the issue, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer did not confirm whether the administration was planning new tough love policies aimed at Cuba, though he repeated that the White House “vociferously condemns” Castro's recent abuses as well as Cuba’s appointment Tuesday to the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission.
This week, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that in light of Castro’s recent activities, “We’re reviewing all of our policies."
Castro has even angered some members of Congress who for years have traveled back and forth to the communist country to meet with both Castro and the dissidents he imprisoned.
“I think he’s finally burned his bridges with our more liberal legislators,” Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., chairman of the House International Relations Western Hemisphere subcommittee (search), told Foxnews.com.
Ballenger supports the sanctions but admits they are not working because the rest of the world has free trade with the communist country.
“You can’t have successful sanctions if the rest of the world won’t go along with them,” he said.
Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., (search) have also voiced disgust in recent weeks over Castro’s actions, but they have all expressed interest in working to lift sanctions as a way to bring democracy to the people in Cuba.
“[Rangel] has said that while he is disappointed and dismayed at the actions of the Cuban government, the embargo is still a bad idea and he will continue to try and see it lifted,” said Emile Milne, spokesman for the New York Democrat.
“He doesn’t oppose [the embargo] because he likes Castro or because things in Cuba are so great,” Milne said, but because he believes Americans have a constitutional right to travel wherever they want, and that more openness with Cuba will further erode Castro’s influence.
Democrats aren’t the only ones pushing for lifting the ban. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., (search) has long led a cadre of conservatives on the march for opening trade and travel ties, using the argument offered for giving communist China most favored nation status: open trade encourages democracy.
“If it were up to me I would lift the entire embargo,” Flake said. “Let’s give Castro what he really fears — exposure to Western capitalism and thought. We’re just a scapegoat for him now and it does the people no good.”
Flake plans to introduce — for the third time — legislation that would prohibit the Treasury Department from using taxpayer dollars to enforce travel restrictions on Cuba. An estimated 170,000 people travel back and forth from the country each year on official or family visas.
The measure passed the House twice in the last year, but failed to pass the Senate both times.
Flake suggested that enacting tougher restrictions, especially ending the remittances, would create a backlash among the Cuban-American community in South Florida, now staunch supporters of Bush.
“If the Bush administration were to clamp down on remittances and Cuban-American travel, you will see a broader schism in that community,” he said.
Not everyone agrees. Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba, said she believes that lifting the sanctions and opening up trade beyond the basic food and medicine it now receives from U.S. companies would appear a reward for Castro’s bad behavior.
She said relaxed travel and trade controls over the last few years have had a negative effect and are responsible for Castro’s "Stalin-like" behavior, comparing him to the late Soviet dictator.
Fleischer suggested that the president would not support lifting the embargo.
“For those who are proposing to remove some of the trade restrictions that exist on Cuba, we remind them that Cuba remains a repressive regime,” he said.
Dennis Hays, executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, (search) which argues that lifting sanctions won’t work, goes even further, suggesting that the administration apply the same energy it exercised in Iraq to Castro in Cuba.
“I am all for consistency,” he said. “We should be calling for regime change.”