(CNSNews.com) - At a press conference on Capitol Hill Thursday, Republican lawmakers criticized members of the liberal Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for meeting with Cuban dictators Raul and Fidel Castro during a junket to Cuba last week, and for failing to condemn the totalitarian regime’s human rights violations.
The lawmakers also dismissed President Barack Obama’s recent criticism of the Bush administration’s policies towards Cuba, and said that Obama must demand the release of Cuban political prisoners before making any concessions to the Communist regime.
“They left Cuba gushing with praise of the Castros and their regime,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R- N.J.), a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in reference to the CBC members who met with the Castros. “Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, they did nothing publicly to show any concern for the myriad gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the Cuban government [or] to the tragic fate of hundreds of Cuban democracy and human rights activists.”
Both Smith and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) also complained that Cuba issued travel visas to members of the CBC but have repeatedly refused their requests for visas to visit with political prisoners and dissidents.
“Why is it that members of Congress who want to go visit the dissidents and go into the prisons, as we have done in the past, are denied yet those who want increased trade and lift the sanctions get to go whenever they want to?” asked Wolf.
Seven members of the CBC, led by Chairman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), returned from their trip to Cuba on Tuesday. They said that they had discussed US-Cuban relations and the potential lifting of trade and travel restrictions between the countries with both Raul and Fidel Castro.
Lee was joined in the congressional delegation by Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.).
"Former President Fidel Castro is very engaging, very energetic," said Lee in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. "Our conclusion is, given the new direction in our foreign policy, it’s time to look at a new direction in our policy toward Cuba.”
"We have had a 50-year policy that did not work," said Lee.
Obama has also advocated a move towards normalization of U.S.- Cuban relations.
"After eight years of the failed policies of the past, we need new leadership for the future," said Obama on the campaign trail on May 23, 2008. "After decades of pressing for top-down reform, we need an agenda that advances democracy, security and opportunity from the bottom up."
But Smith said Tuesday that Bush administration policies had not failed and that -- if anything -- other countries’ open trade and tourism policies towards Cuba had undermined U.S. efforts to force Cuba into changing its human right’s practices.
“It [the Bush policy] has been consistent and it has been noble,” Smith told CNSNews.com. “The Bush administration tried to say human rights matter significantly in our relationship with [Cuba] and that we stand in solidarity with the Cuban people -- that we stand with the oppressed and not the oppressor.”
“The fact that many of our European friends, and Canada, and other countries have failed to support us in this, have enabled, perhaps unwittingly, but have enabled this dictatorship to work,” said Smith. “So our hope is that they will join us.”
According to the State Department’s 2008 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, by the end of 2007 there were at least 205 political prisoners and detainees in Cuba, and up to 5,000 citizens serving sentences for ‘dangerousness” without being charged with a crime.
The report states: “The following human rights problems were reported. Beatings and abuse of detainees and prisoners, including human rights activists, carried out with impunity; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; harassment, beatings, and threats against political opponents by government-recruited mobs, police and State Security officials; arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights activists.”