By Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)
Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Chris Smith is a Republican congressman from New Jersey’s Fourth District. He is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Ranking Republican of the Committee's Africa and Global Health Subcommittee.
On a recent April morning, I joined a group of former Cuban political prisoners and family members and human rights activists at a rally to voice concerns about human rights violations in Cuba, and to caution the Obama administration not to extend benefits to Cuba without the prior release of all political prisoners.
Days earlier, seven Democratic members of the House returned from Cuba having met with Raul and Fidel Castro. They gushed with praise for the Castros and their regime. But I, and many others, were profoundly disappointed that once again members of Congress traveled to this totalitarian country and failed to visit prisoners of conscience, all of whom are systematically abused, tortured, starved and degraded.
They failed to visit their harassed families. They failed to visit courageous human rights advocates like Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, “Antunez,” who has been on a hunger strike since mid-February. The lawmakers failed to even attempt to see Dr. Oscar Biscet, a medical doctor and human rights reformer who has been treated with such wanton cruelty that he may not long survive.
When the tragic plight of political prisoners is ignored, suppressed, devalued or trivialized by visiting politicians, the bullies in the gulags are emboldened to further inflict pain on their prisoners
Sadly, only four days after the rally, the Obama administration took unprecedented and unilateral actions to increase travel and financial transactions to Cuba, with virtually nothing in exchange on the Castros’ behalf. At a bare minimum, the U.S. should have insisted on reasonable liberalizations for Cubans traveling to the U.S., especially Cuba’s abhorrent practice of holding back the children of Cubans traveling, in effect using children as hostages to guarantee the travelers’ return.
By allowing Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba, spending U.S. dollars on state-owned hotels, restaurants and transportation, President Obama has handed over a huge economic boon to Fidel and Raul Castro. Further, Obama’s decision to permit Cuban-Americans to send money to their relatives in Cuba also puts money directly into the pockets of Havana, since these remittances are heavily levied with Cuban government fees.
The State Department’s 2008 Country Report on Human Rights Practices estimated that there were over 200 political prisoners in Cuba and as many as 5,000 citizens who served sentences without being charged with any specific crime. In the prisons, beatings and abuse of detainees and political prisoners, including human rights activists, are carried out with impunity. The report also cited “severe limitations on freedom of speech and press” as well as the denial of peaceful assembly, associations, movements, exit permits and freedom of religion.
Consider the cause of José Cohen, a former Cuban Interior Ministry official, who fled Cuba on a raft in August 1994. He testified at a congressional hearing I chaired several years ago, and told my committee that he has been trying to get his wife and three children out of Cuba, and to this day, Castro has refused to grant them permission to leave the island. Rather than the exception, the Cohens’ plight is the rule.
Over the past 50 years, the Castros and their secret police have been directly responsible for killing thousands of non-violent, courageous pro-democracy activists and for jailing and torturing tens of thousands. And they continue to this day, to perpetrate their brutal crimes.
As far back as 2001, I have offered an amendment to lift the travel ban to Cuba in exchange for improvements on basic human rights, including the release of all political prisoners. Cuba has failed to make any significant steps regarding human rights.
The Obama administration’s actions are favorable to the Castro brothers, who will select those to be approved for visas and be allowed into Cuba. Those perceived as promoting human rights or basic freedoms stand little chance of entering the country.
In fact, since 1989, even the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) has been blocked from visiting and assessing the welfare of prisoners. Last week, Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia and I again asked the Cuban government for visas to visit political prisoners. (We’ve been turned away twice before.)
Before the Obama administration even considers making further concessions to Cuba or altering the trade embargo on Cuba, both the White House and Congress have a moral obligation—a duty—to ensure that the Cuban dictatorship releases all prisoners of conscience, makes substantial progress in respecting freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly, and holds free and fair elections.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rep. Chris Smith.