(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry asked Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) Wednesday not to “put words in my mouth” after the Cuban-American lawmaker objected to him citing China as an example when arguing for engaging repressive regimes like the one in Havana.
Diaz-Balart disagreed sharply with using China as “a model” when talking about engaging with Cuba, and Kerry stressed that the U.S. continues to have “huge differences” with China.
The exchange centered on the administration’s decision to end half a century of isolating the Castro regime. President Obama announced on Dec. 17 the U.S. would restore diplomatic ties, and said he hoped to work with Congress to lift the 53 year-old trade embargo.
Testifying on his department’s fiscal year 2016 budget request, Kerry told the House Appropriations’ foreign operations subcommittee that isolation had not helped to prod Cuba towards ending repression.
“I think we’ve actually helped repression by shutting it [engagement] down,” he said. “Much easier for regimes that are not held accountable, that don’t interact with the world, that sort of are shut off, to be repressive.”
Diaz-Balart, who has called Obama’s policy “appeasement,” pointed out that hundreds of arrests have taken place since the Dec. 17 announcement, most recently this past weekend, and that at least five of the 53 political prisoners whose release had been cited by the administration as “kind of the success story” of the normalization move had since been rearrested.
It seemed the administration was “looking forward towards normalization at all costs, regardless of what the regime is doing,” he said.
Kerry disagreed: “I think there’s a much greater opportunity to be able to hold them accountable and deal with that [repression] when you have the scrutiny that will come with additional transactions, commerce, presence, money in the hands of people there …”
“That’s how we’ve operated in many other countries,” he said, pointing to the opening up of relations with the then Soviet Union and with China – although he did add, “we still have huge disagreements with China.”
“We were able to do more as a consequence of that engagement, and ultimately both changed. One disappeared – the Soviet Union – and the other has been increasingly partnering, opening up, engaging in different ways, even as we continue to have some problems.”
“I would not use China as a model to talk about, when we talk about human rights,” said Diaz-Balart. “That’s precisely what we do not –
As Kerry tried to interject, the lawmaker continued, “Well, you talk about the success of China, I would tell you that’s not a success.”
“Please don’t put words in my mouth,” Kerry said.
“I mentioned China as a country with whom we have normalized diplomatic relations, and huge differences is what I said – huge differences, both on a political system, on human rights, business practices, cyber, run the list.”
“Has that [normalization] helped the human rights condition of the Chinese people?” asked Diaz-Balart. “That’s a discussion for another time because our – my time is up. I would argue Mr. Secretary that it has not.”
Earlier Kerry said the administration had not backed away from human rights and democratization priorities with Cuba, noting that Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, during a first round of normalization talks in Havana last month, had met with civil society representatives even though the regime was not happy about it.
The U.S. would continue to press its case, he said, but believed it would have much more advantage in doing so if it has diplomatic relations.
The State Department announced Wednesday that Jacobson would lead a U.S. delegation to a second, one-day round of talks with the Cubans, in Washington on Thursday.
Referring to those talks Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another Cuban-American in Congress critical of the normalization effort, urged the administration to prioritize human rights and democratization “before any more concessions are made to the regime.”
“U.S. officials are so desperate to open a U.S. embassy in Havana, that they’re forging ahead despite a new wave of repression that has jailed over 200 Cuban democracy activists in the past two weeks,” he said in a statement.
Rubio also voiced concern about a recent two-day visit to Cuba by a Democratic congressional delegation, which he said had “sent worrying signals to the regime that human rights are, in fact, negotiable.”
The delegation, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), stayed at Havana’s Hotel Saratoga, which according to the Capitol Hill Cubans blog was confiscated by the Castro regime in 1959 and again in 2011.
“By staying in a regime-controlled hotel that was confiscated twice in its history, these U.S. officials sent a worrying message that the many legal claims the U.S. has against the Castro regime are not a priority for U.S. lawmakers,” Rubio said.
He also charged that the visiting lawmakers had not met with dissidents and rights activists, saying such actions were interpreted by the regime “as signs that U.S. policy makers are not truly interested in the democratic aspirations and human rights of the Cuban people.”
At a Feb. 19 press conference in Havana, several of the delegation members spoke about human rights concerns.
“We obviously all care deeply about the human rights issue, but I think it is our view that the best way to promote human rights is to accelerate this new process, to establish a formal embassy in Havana and to establish a formal Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
“Rather than doing press conferences and pointing fingers, and making accusations, we ought to have a more mature relationship where we actually talk about some of these issues,” he added. “We’re not going to agree on everything but I think that we can probably accomplish a lot more if we have a relationship based on mutual respect and appreciation from where each side is coming from.”
Among others, delegation members met with Cuban first vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel and Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega.