Cuban-Americans Clash on Capitol Hill

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - Efforts to pressure Congress on Cuba policy erupted in yelling and a scuffle among demonstrators Wednesday as debate over the long-standing trade embargo and travel ban to the communist island escalated.

Anti-embargo demonstrators yelling "give me my right to travel," in Spanish were confronted by embargo supporters who want to keep the travel restrictions in place.

Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), JoAnn Emerson (R-Mo.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and James McGovern (D-Mass.), who also want an end to the embargo and travel ban, told demonstrators the restrictions would be lifted before the year is out.

A group of anti-Fidel Castro exiles disrupted the news conference, gathering across the street and shouting "Democracy for Cuba" and "Cuba Si, Castro No."

That prompted many of those gathered outside the Cannon House Office Building to return the shouting until they were quieted and the press conference was allowed to continue.

Flake, in voicing support for lifting the embargo, said, "I believe that it is in our interests as well as good policy and good politics. It is simply the right thing to embrace freedom.

Flake added, "Americans are not only allowed but even encouraged to travel to China and to North Korea and to Vietnam to spread our values and our culture and American ideals. Why not Cuba?"

Emerson acknowledged the pro-embargo demonstrators.

"They are yelling across the street that I should be ashamed because I believe that you all ought to be able to travel to Cuba. I say shame on them for trying to prevent us from freely traveling to Cuba."

Delvis Fernandez Levy, president of the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, criticized President Bush for not changing policy toward Cuba.

"Despite overwhelming congressional votes for lifting the travel ban, Cuban Americans must still face penalties for simply visiting their loved ones," said Levy. "Let all Americans be free to travel and expand respectful contacts with our closest Caribbean neighbor."

Following the press conference, a brief scuffle broke out between the two sides but was quickly broken up by Capitol Hill Police. The anti-embargo demonstrators departed while the anti-Castro demonstrators remained and were joined by several members of Congress, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).

Ros-Lehtinen scoffed at Flake's remarks, saying, "It's ludicrous for someone to think that contact with a cabana boy, giving them a pool so that they can enjoy a sunny-side resort on a beachside in Cuba is people-to-people Cuban contact and that that brings democracy."

Ros-Lehtinen said Castro "only wants American dollars and that's not going to bring freedom to Cuba."

Diaz-Balart also expressed anger at Flake's comments. "Saying that you've got to travel to Castro's cabana and tourism apartheid to find out about the suffering of the Cuban people is like saying that in order to find out about narcotics you've got to deal in drugs," said Diaz-Balart. "That's an insult and an absurdity to freedom loving people."

President Bush has repeatedly said he will not lift the trade embargo or travel restrictions against Cuba until Castro frees political prisoners and allows free elections.

Current law allows Americans to visit and spend money in Cuba, but only if they have official permission from the Treasury Department.

Authorized groups include journalists, family members of Cuban nationals, humanitarian workers and students on educational missions however, the travel ban has been loosely enforced in recent years.

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