HAVANA – Peace activists visiting Cuba to protest the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay expressed hope Sunday that the new Democratic congressional leadership will help ease long-standing U.S. trade and travel sanctions against the communist-run island.
"I think it is about time we end the embargo and open up relations between the Cuban and American people," said Cindy Sheehan, who became an anti-war protester after her 24-year-old son, Casey, was killed in Iraq in April 2004. "It hurts both sides."
U.S. restrictions bar most Americans from spending money in Cuba, effectively preventing them from traveling here legally. The restrictions also bar virtually all trade between the countries, except for some U.S. sales of food and medicine to the island.
Sheehan has drawn attention by camping outside President Bush's ranch to protest the war and has been arrested during demonstrations. She drew criticism from some Democrats in late December for joining with other protesters to shout down a party news conference in Washington.
Also in the delegation to Cuba is Medea Benjamin, who organized the trip through the California activist groups Global Exchange and Codepink.
"The restrictions have been around way too long, change is way overdue," Benjamin said, adding that the Cuba sanctions made the group's trip very difficult.
"We had to jump through hoops to put together this delegation," she said.
Benjamin said she and others in the group of 12 believe they are exempt from the U.S. restrictions because they are traveling as professional human rights activists who will attend a daylong international conference in the Cuban city of Guantanamo on Wednesday.
They plan to protest outside the main gate of the U.S. Navy's Guantanamo base Thursday to call for the closure of its prison for terrorism suspects.
Among the delegation is a former U.S. Army colonel, a constitutional law expert, the mother of a British citizen held at Guantanamo and a former detainee there.
The U.S. military says the prison now holds about 395 men on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda or the Taliban, including about 85 who have been cleared to be released or transferred to other countries. The military says it wants to charge 60 to 80 detainees and bring them to trial.
The protest outside the base will coincide with demonstrations around the world calling on Washington to shut the prison on the fifth anniversary the first prisoners' arrival.