(CNSNews.com) - Amid increasing speculation over the severity of Fidel Castro's medical condition, a coalition of advocates for open relations with Cuba urged the Bush administration Monday to lift the trade and travel embargo against the communist country.
"U.S. policy has failed to accomplish its goals after more than 40 years," the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FRD) said in a statement. "Instead of isolating Cuba, we have isolated ourselves from the viewpoints of every other country in our hemisphere and virtually the entire membership of the United Nations."
The group argued that the embargo "denied to the United States the natural influence that comes from normal economic and cultural ties with a close neighbor."
The FRD and 10 other Cuba interest groups joined with members of a bipartisan congressional delegation to Cuba in calling for an end to the embargo, which was initiated by a 1962 executive order by President John F. Kennedy.
Last week, 10 U.S. lawmakers met with Cuban government officials to discuss changes in U.S. policy that would ease the restrictions.
Castro, 80, underwent intestinal surgery last July and has not been seen in public since. Members of the congressional delegation that said Cuban officials told them the dictator was not terminally ill.
A Gallup poll conducted Dec. 8-10 found that while only 21 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of the government in Havana, more than two-thirds support re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba. In November, the U.N. General Assembly continued a 15-year-old trend of condemning the embargo.
The coalition of Cuban groups is optimistic that a new Democrat-controlled Congress will vote to weaken or lift travel restrictions, which the groups say will foster understanding between Americans and Cubans.
"Average grassroots Americans must be able to go to their local travel agent and book a ticket to travel to Cuba to learn about the history, culture, natural attractions and daily life of a close and heretofore forbidden neighbor," the FRD said.
"Congress can and must restore the right of all Americans to travel to Cuba in 2007. This is a bipartisan cause, with leaders of reform on both sides of the aisle," it stated.
But while the new Congress may be open to re-establishing ties with Cuba, President Bush has supported the embargo, saying he would consider lifting it only after the Cuban government embraces democracy.
'The ball's in Cuba's court'
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that the congressional delegation's presence in Cuba and the calls for lifting restrictions would not change U.S. policy.
"This divide over whether or not to have an embargo on Cuba or to lift it, it's a debate that's been going on for some time," McCormack told reporters. "We understand that there are some in Congress who have a very different view ... but there's no change to our policy."
On August 23, Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon called Castro's illness "a very propitious moment to begin to talk aloud about the importance of a transition to democracy in Cuba."
But he reiterated Bush's 2002 demand the Cuba "free political prisoners, respect human rights ... permit the creation of independent organizations such as political parties, trade unions, civic associations" before the United States would consider lifting the embargo.
Shannon said the offer is "still on the table, and we believe that if the Cuban government were to begin a political opening and a transition to democracy, we could be in a position following the offer made in 2002 to begin to look at ways to deepen our own relationship with Cuba."
Analysts such as Steven Johnson at the conservative Heritage Foundation believe that easing the travel ban would encourage Castro and his successor-brother, Raul Castro.
Johnson wrote earlier this year that recent financial trouble faced by the Cuban government is partially a result of decreased tourism there since 2001 and that lifting the travel ban "would give the regime a much-needed shot in the arm."
Johnson added that while Castro would grant entry to tourists with money to spend, he would likely reject tourists coming to encourage pro-democracy activists working to overthrow the regime.
"It supports the government more than anything," Johnson told Cybercast News Service of money earned through tourism. "What that does, though, is it pours money into the regime. It allows the regime to have hard currency, some of which it uses to pay off its credit bills to other countries."
Johnson said it was unlikely that the Bush administration would engage in talks with Cuba until Castro -- Fidel or Raul -- showed initiative in instituting reforms.
"Clearly, the ball's in Cuba's court," he said. "Basically, the regime has to allow economic and political liberties and end its policy of hostility against the United States" if it wants to work with the United States government.
He said that while Raul Castro "isn't ready to warm up to the United States in any significant way," historical trends show that "second- and third-generation leaders tend to be much more pragmatic and much more open to liberal reforms than the original revolutionary leaders."
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