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Published June 29, 2010, 10:49 AM

Letter urges end to Cuba travel, export ban

WASHINGTON — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said a letter from more than 70 pro-democracy, anti-Castro Cuban leaders urging Congress to pass his bipartisan bill to end the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba and to ease U.S. agricultural exports should convince House members to support the bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said a letter from more than 70 pro-democracy, anti-Castro Cuban leaders urging Congress to pass his bipartisan bill to end the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba and to ease U.S. agricultural exports should convince House members to support the bill.

“When the strongest pro-democracy activists in Cuba say that the current travel and agriculture trade restrictions only support the Castro regime, you have to ask yourself why we would keep these restrictions in place,” Peterson said. “The statement of these pro-democracy, anti-Castro dissidents supporting H.R 4645 is a strong indication that people who oppose this bill are not speaking on behalf of the Cuban people, regardless of what they say. Who are we helping by continuing a policy that has been in place for 50 years and has yet to change anything?”

In the letter, which Peterson has posted on the House Agriculture Committee website, the dissidents acknowledged that money from American tourism “could be used to support and even worsen repression,” but said, “We believe, however, that, if the citizens of the United States . . . could: first, serve as witnesses to the suffering of the Cuban people; second, be even more sensitized to the need for changes in Cuba; and third, offer solidarity and a bridge to facilitate the transition we Cubans so greatly desire.” The dissidents added that making the exportation of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba easier “would help alleviate the food shortages we now suffer.”

‘Game changer’

Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which supports lifting the bill, said she thinks the letter could be “a game changer” in convincing members of Congress to pass it because the signatories included prominent dissidents such as blogger Yoani Sanchez, hunger striker Guillermo Farinas and Miriam Leiva, leader of a group called Ladies in White.

“Their letter answers every argument the pro-embargo forces use to oppose this legislation,” Stephens said. “This, itself, answers the question ‘who is speaking for the Cuban people in this debate?’ — those who want to send food and Americans to visit the island and stand with ordinary Cubans or those who don’t.”

Peterson, whose bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., has not held a markup on his bill. Sources have said that he has had a hard time getting a clear majority of his committee to support the bill because some members have accepted campaign donations from Cuban-

oriented political action committees. Stephens said the letter should put pressure on House members.

House Agriculture ranking member Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who has opposed the bill, declined to comment on it. A spokesman for Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a Cuban-American House member who opposes liberalization of relations with Cuba while Fidel Castro is in power, said, “We are contacting many of the alleged signers to determine the truth. The so-called Cuba Study Group and business groups seeking to push Mr. Peterson’s bill are behind this campaign, the credibility of which is questionable.”

Information: http://agriculture.house.gov/inside/

Legislation/111/CubaCivilSocietyletter.pdf.

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