Critics say U.S. lawmakers erred by meeting with Castro brothers

WASHINGTON -- Two former Cuban political prisoners and congressional backers of the U.S. embargo against Cuba Thursday lambasted a Congressional Black Caucus visit to Havana for overlooking the plight of dissidents on the island.

Republican Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Frank Wolf of Virginia said they've been trying to visit with political prisoners, but have twice been blocked from visiting Cuba by the Castro government. They were filing a third request Thursday.

''The Cuban government routinely denies lawmakers who have criticized its human rights record any access to the country itself,'' Smith told reporters. ``But for members of Congress who signal they will be docile, it rolls out the red carpet.''

The news conference came two days after a delegation led by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. -- the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus -- returned to Washington, lauding Raúl and Fidel Castro for openness. The delegation -- which spent five days in Cuba -- did not meet with dissidents, but said it first needed to start ``a discussion to be able to talk about the issues Afro-Cubans are raising.''

But Smith charged that by not raising human rights issues, the delegation sent the wrong signal to the regime.

''When the tragic plight of political prisoners is ignored, suppressed, devalued or trivialized by visiting politicians,'' he said, ``the bullies in the gulags are given a free pass to inflict pain.''

Lee, in a statement, said ``everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but by any objective standard our current policy toward Cuba just hasn't worked.

''Simply put, it's time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba,'' she said. 'It's time to talk to Cuba. I am convinced, based on the meetings which were held, that the Cubans do want dialogue, they do want talks, and they do want normal relations with the United States of America. And I believe that it's in the United States' best interest to do that.''

Lázaro Miranda and Félix Cifuentes, two Afro-Cubans who said they had been imprisoned by the regime, criticized the lawmakers for not seeking out the opposition.

''They didn't get the real picture because they were not looking for the real picture,'' said Cifuentes, who spent nine years in Cuban prisons. ``What that delegation saw was out of Fidel's eyes.''

The dueling press conferences illustrate the looming fight over the decades-old embargo that critics say is a relic of the Cold War but supporters say should remain until Cuba improves its human rights record.

President Barack Obama is expected to soon ease travel and gift restrictions on Cuban-Americans but has said he supports keeping the economic embargo against the island. Two bills in Congress, however, would lift all travel restrictions against the island, allowing Americans to travel there.

Smith said Congress and the White House have a ''moral obligation'' before easing sanctions against Cuba to make sure the government releases political prisoners, holds fair elections and allows a free press.

''To the Cuban government,'' he said, ``free the political prisoners, respect human rights and don't be so afraid to issue Mr. Wolf and me a visa.''

The Cuban National Foundation, which backs the embargo, is calling on President Obama to push for change on the island from within by increasing support for Cuba's fledgling civil society, increasing ''people-to-people exchanges,'' and ``targeted bilateral and multilateral diplomatic efforts.''

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