Lawmakers back from Cuba slammed for ignoring dissidents

WASHINGTON — Two former Cuban political prisoners and congressional backers of the U.S. embargo against Cuba on 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 press 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 Raul 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.''

Upon their return to Washington Tuesday, Lee said the group was not in Cuba to negotiate conditions for engaging in talks, but hoped to see that they happened.

"What we're saying is two sovereign nations should be able to talk about their differences and what they have in common,'' she said Tuesday.

Lazaro Miranda and Felix 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.

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.''

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