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Dissidents say it's time to open talks

Published December 18, 2006


HAVANA - Former Cuban diplomat and economist Oscar Espinosa has fought a 14-year battle with the Cuban government. He was only recently released from jail for his dissident writings.

But these days Espinosa's beef is as much with the United States government as it is with Havana's communist authorities.

"It's absurd what the Americans are doing," he said during a long interview in the small Havana apartment, stuffed with books where he lives with his wife and fellow dissident, Miriam Leiva.

"There's no room for extremism. What we need is to create space for dialogue."

He was referring to the widely condemned U.S. embargo against Cuba and to additional restrictions imposed by the Bush administration in 2004 limiting family travel to the island by Cuban-Americans, as well as cash remittances sent to relatives.

Dramatic recent events in Havana and Washington are causing Cubans, both on the island and in exile, to question U.S. policy more loudly than ever. Four months after Cuban leader Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power due to illness, his recovery seems ever more doubtful.

Many Cubans would like to see Washington explore a different approach with the collective leadership emerging under Castro's younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.

Those Cubans are also hoping that current U.S. policy toward Cuba might soften in the new Democratic controlled Congress. A 10-member congressional delegation, led by prominent critics of the U.S. embargo, returned from a three-day trip to Cuba on Sunday as part of an effort to explore ways of opening negotiations with Havana's new leaders.

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., said Sunday that the lawmakers' visit "underscores the desire for a change in policy that we believe is embraced by most Americans."

Since taking the helm, Raul Castro has twice expressed Cuba's willingness to begin talks to normalize relations with the United States.

Each overture was rejected by the State Department, which says it will only talk when Cuba opens democratically and begins a dialogue "with the Cuban people."

Cuban dissidents complain that Washington is not only missing out on a historic opportunity, but is ignoring domestic opinion.

A Gallup poll this month found that 67 percent of Americans favor restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Even before Castro's illness, Cuban-Americans had been showing signs of weariness with the embargo. Miami's three hard-line Cuban-American members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother Mario Diaz-Balart, were comfortably re-elected in November, but with reduced majorities.

When two of the three members recently appeared on a popular Spanish-language TV show in Miami to defend the travel measures, they were visibly embarrassed when a telephone poll of viewers came out 57 percent against the policy.

Earlier this month an umbrella group of Cuban exile organizations in Miami echoed the call for easing restrictions on travel and remittances. Consenso Cubano issued a report saying that the policy "violated fundamental rights of Cubans, damages the Cuban family, and constitutes ethical contradictions." Perhaps most significant, the report was backed by the Cuban American National Foundation, for many years the political powerhouse for Cuban exiles.

"Isolating people has never brought about political transition," said Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban-American banker and co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, a member of Consenso Cubano. "How can the administration call for Cuba to start a dialogue with the Cuban people if we can't even travel there?"

Four prominent dissidents signed a statement late last month asking the United States to lift its travel restrictions, which allow Cuban-Americans to visit family members only once every three years. U.S. laws "in no way help" their struggle, they said.

The four also questioned the effectiveness of U.S. aid programs designed to assist dissidents. Their statement followed a congressional report by the General Accountability Office that lambasted the program's lax controls and wasteful spending.

The dissidents said they hoped easing travel restrictions would make the aid flow better, adding that they need foreign financial help to overcome harassment in Cuba, which usually includes loss of employment.

But dissidents say the issue of aid pales compared to the search for political solutions to end the conflict with the United States.

"Without Fidel, we have to look at Cuba with a more open mind," said Vladimiro Roca, another dissident who has served jail time. Raul Castro deserves credit as "a very organized person" who capably led the Defense Ministry, which Roca described as "the most organized and efficient institution" in Cuba. "He has always had good advisers and he listens to advice," he added.

Espinosa and Roca agreed that the United States should carefully study Raul Castro's offer of negotiations. "He made a positive proposal," said Roca, the son of a Communist Party leader. "It deserved a better answer."

While the dissidents have no fondness for the Cuban communist system, besides a firm belief in the social gains of free education and health, they nonetheless argue that it is foolish to advocate sudden, wholesale political change in Cuba.

Instead, they expect very gradual change, beginning with an economic opening similar to the Chinese model. As evidence, they point to a weekly TV show, Mirando China Looking at China, running on Cuban state television. The Chinese broadcast with subtitles showcases the achievements of China's burgeoning market economy, complete with glittering high-rises and streets choked with new cars.

"Raul and Fidel are different personalities so their style of leadership will be different," Roca said. "I don't know if it will be better or worse. We must let him work and then we'll see."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. David Adams can be reached at or (305) 361-6393.

[Last modified December 18, 2006, 06:31:43]

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