WASHINGTON – Three Cuban dissidents addressed a congressional committee by telephone from Havana on Thursday, praising President Bush's policies and denouncing Fidel Castro (search).
It was testimony that could land dissidents back in a prison where they all had once served time, lawmakers said. One asked if the dissidents feared that would happen.
"I am simply a soldier for freedom and democracy," said Felix Bonne, speaking over a crackling phone line from the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana (search). "I don't want to go back to prison. None of us do. But I wouldn't hesitate in returning if it were necessary to defend the rights of the Cuban people."
The hearing by two House International Relations subcommittees was the latest in a series of acts of mutual defiance and outright hostility between the Bush and Castro governments.
After the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana put up a Christmas display supporting Cuban dissidents, Cuba responded with a billboard emblazoned with photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners and a huge swastika overlaid with a "Made in the U.S.A." stamp.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Cuba (search) as being among the world's "outposts of tyranny." Castro has called Bush "deranged."
At the hearing Thursday, the State Department's top official for Latin America, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, said Castro would be remembered as "a wretched old man who told too many lies."
Congress is sharply divided over policy to Cuba. Farm state lawmakers from both parties and liberal Democrats say more than four decades of U.S. embargoes have failed to end Castro's dictatorship and that policies of engagement are more likely to produce changes.
But Cuban-American lawmakers and Republican congressional leaders favor Bush's hard line. Bush, seeking to deny Castro U.S. dollars, has tightened the embargo, making it harder for Americans to travel to or do business with Cuba.
The dissidents at the hearing endorsed Bush's approach. They were Martha Beatriz Roque, an economist, Rene Gomez, an attorney, and Bonne, an electrical engineering professor.
Roque, Gomez and Bonne were among four well-known Castro opponents arrested in 1997 and convicted of incitement to sedition in 1999 after a closed trial that sparked international protests. They were released in May 2000.
Roque was later among 75 opponents arrested in a crackdown on the opposition in March 2003. She was released for health reasons in July 2004.
Gomez and Roque spoke in English; Bonne spoke in Spanish, with a State Department interpreter translating in the hearing room.
Roque rejected suggestions by Democratic lawmakers that the United States negotiate with Castro. "He only hears what he wants to hear," she said.
Roque also said visits by American tourists wouldn't help ordinary Cubans and would lead to more prostitution and drug trafficking.
The hearing was aimed as much at an international audience as a domestic one. U.S. officials have been disappointed that the European Union recently lifted a suspension on high-level contacts with Cuba that was imposed after the 2003 crackdown.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the Human Rights subcommittee, called the decision "shameless."
Noriega said the United States is trying to persuade the European Union "that the time for engaging a decrepit regime that's on its last legs, breathing its last breath, has passed."