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April 16th, 2009
12:35 PM ET

Commentary: Obama’s actions favor Castros, not human rights

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.
[cnn-photo-caption image= caption= "Chris Smith is a Republican congressman from New Jersey’s Fourth District."]
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.

Filed under: Controversy • Cuba
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Andrew

    Chris Smith recognizes the dignity of the human person and acts to defend that person whether she's a prisoner of the Castro regime or an unborn child. Good for him! Good for our country! And even better for the oppressed–born and unborn– who will someday enjoy the fruits of his labor!

    April 19, 2009 at 4:38 pm |
  2. Ricardo Fernandez

    Wow–anyone who reads the comments on this board comes away with a little bit of brain damage from the level of ignorance exhibited by the Castro apologists–almost everyone who posted.

    I need to go take a shower to wash away the stupid after reading this...

    –An "affluent white Miami Cuban" whose racist family came to this country after "Babtista" was toppled by Castro, who has done social wonders and was driven into the arms of communists by all the eee-vil people in the US and in Cuba when it was owned by the United Fruit Company...

    April 18, 2009 at 8:26 pm |
  3. spirit


    April 18, 2009 at 5:35 pm |
  4. oh grow up

    You democrates sound like a step mother who wants to beat up on their step child when their flesh and blood child does evil. It is wrong to snuggle up to Castro and his beasty little brother and praise them for being so generous in giving them the time of day to listen to them degrading America and the American people. Oh please... If they love Castro oil so much, why didn't they just stay down there? Just what would these misguided individuals do if American treated the democrates like Castro treats the Cuban people?

    April 18, 2009 at 5:29 pm |
  5. Les McFann

    The conservatives who are against relations with Cuba conveniently forget the old days when Batista ruled with an iron fist. We, of course, loved him because he favored the the sugar, cattle, and gambling interests in this country.

    April 17, 2009 at 9:14 am |
  6. Mary

    We have to first be able to keep our own religious rights, freedom of speech, and all of our other wonderful constitutional rights! Most, as Americans, do not even see that right here in America, we are losing those very rights that you fight for in Cuba. We have changed our constitution so many times, that soon, it may end up only being a piece of paper that is studied as past history in our schools. That would be a shame. All the bloodloss in history, fighting for a freedom that we find ourselves continually fighting to keep! I am for humanitarian rights. Please figure out how to stop the injustices being done to these people even if our president turns his head on the people! He seems to be turning his head on OUR people each day... Someone needs to be fighting for them. Keep up the good work. My prayers and my tears are with you all.

    April 17, 2009 at 5:56 am |
  7. michael j. burke

    These Republicant's are getting stale and tired. The Republicans have reduced themselves to nothing more than a group of mendacious crepe hangers .

    April 17, 2009 at 5:38 am |
  8. greg duggins

    Chris Smith's pretence of being interested in human rights is a joke. There are far worse regimes in the world and many of them are close allies of the US – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Morocco, Libya, China etc.
    If Chris Smith wants to be taken seriously he needs to stop being a hypocrite. Cuba may not be the best place in the world to live, but it's certainly better than it was under the americans before Castro came to power.

    April 17, 2009 at 5:09 am |
  9. Zooni

    Policies should be made to the advantage of the people of the world not as Political ploys.

    If Rep. Smith is truly concerned for the well being of the Cuban people he would embrace this move as a way to give the Cuban people more money via trade and tourism. Once the people can put food on the table, they may have enough energy to effect changes in their country.

    Castro is a bad guy. But the US just finished torturing a bunch of Muslims without giving them a fair trial. I don't think you can pull out the ethics card after that.

    April 17, 2009 at 12:54 am |
  10. Jamila Malluf

    The United Fruit Company controls Cuba that is all this has to do with except for possible miltary strength. I am sure many people dont know who the United Fruit Company is but if you watched the God Father you will know. The United Fruit Company oops re-named Chiquita Banana is a extremely dangrous orginazation and it is they who wanted this embargo I hope it is completely lifted and soon.

    April 16, 2009 at 11:53 pm |
  11. James Z Daniels

    Please, Congressman Smith: It is because we are in hock to Communist China that you are not going after them? They are the ones raining down tyranny on Christians, dissidents, and the families under their one child rule. Why are you not shouting about the abortions in China? Impose an embargo on them. I dare you! Do you know that the white Cubans who fled to the US were the racists under Batista and that here in the US they shun the black Cubans? China is a greater threat to the US than Cuba. The US/Cuban policy has failed, damn it! Admit that it has failed. It failed because it is stupid!! We are getting cozy with Iran and you are opposed to setting Cuba free? For God's sake, man, wake up and inhale the hyprocisy!!

    April 16, 2009 at 10:59 pm |

    How can you possibly condone the visit of 4 nitwits to Cuba meddling in foreign affairs. Well its par for the course, name one thing OBUMA has done so far but give away the Us Treasury to every nondescript outfit and orginization you can name. Can you believe it. He has about as much bookeeping experience as a brick. We are in a Hell of a mess and only going deeper.

    April 16, 2009 at 9:51 pm |
  13. Human Rights

    Torture should not be an issue in reguards to Cuba, just look what was going on in the U.S. under the previous admin.
    What went wrong at the Castro overthrow of the Babtista regime. Was Castro actually looking towards Communism or as history might show, he was forced into it when the Babtista backers with their money and U,S.influence gave Castro the cold shoulder.

    April 16, 2009 at 9:48 pm |
  14. KEN

    One stands a much better chance of bringing change to Cuba with an open door policy.The embargo and other restrictions on Cuba by the United States has simply not worked and has resulted in more hardship for the citizens of Cuba who need help the most.Most of the formerly affluent Cubans : pre-Castro, are now in Florida enjoying a very afflluent life-style.WHAT THEREFORE HAS THE EMBARGO ACHIEVED OTHER THAN TO SUSTAIN THE STATUS QUO IN CUBA.Meanwhile with open communication, the United States could also learn a lot from Cuba such as in the areas of health care and disaster preparedness.Cuba has had an outstanding record in those two areas. In disaster preparedness, that country has the lowest death toll through hurricane impact in the world ; even while experiencing some of the worst tropical cyclones that mother nature could conjure up.On another front, the United States does full open business with China whose human rights record based on the United states scale of merasurement, is no better than Cuba's, maybe even worse.The whole thing smacks of just outright political hypocrisy and ecenomic and political opportunism at work. The United States simply cannot afford a similar posture against China. The fact is, it is simply able to bully Cuba because it can afford to.

    April 16, 2009 at 9:38 pm |
  15. Bob Ramos

    With all due respect to Rep. Smith, he is completely out of line. The embargo has been in place for 47 years and has changed not one thing. The only thing it has done is to force us to watch from the sidelines while England, France, Germany, Canada, China and the rest of the world have traded with Cuba. Recently, Cuba discovered vast new fields of natural gas and crude within its legal boundaries. Because we were forbidden by law to work with Cuba, the Chinese have won the right to develop these fields for Cuba. There are many more like instances.

    April 16, 2009 at 7:23 pm |
  16. Trig Combs

    BETRAYAL: Clinton, Castro & The Cuban interesting book about the last Democrat President who ried to negotiate with Fidel. It cost American lives and the murders were swept under the rug!

    April 16, 2009 at 6:25 pm |
  17. Wojciech

    In the last Republican Congress, Smith voted with the Democrats more than any other Republican. So much for "the congressman and other ultra-conservatives." And he speaks out about human rights in China all the time.

    April 16, 2009 at 2:28 pm |
  18. whatdoesitmattrer

    I guess the congressman is as concern about the US-China relationship as well. If after 50 years and 10 American presidents, the congressman and other ultra-conservatives does not realise that embargo and other such foolish moves will not bring down the Castro(s) rule, then i pitty them all.

    April 16, 2009 at 1:20 pm |