Friday, June 01, 2007

US congressmen defy Bush, call for Cuba talks

Monsters and Critics

Jun 1, 2007, 18:28 GMT
By Silvia Ayuso

Deutsche Presse-Agentur

Havana - After four intense days of meetings in Cuba, several US congressmen visiting the communist island say that an interim presidency on the Caribbean island is a window of opportunity to ease relations, in sharp contrast with the Bush administration's view.

'The time is right to start a dialogue, and obviously, with the elections in our country coming next year and the changes in Cuba, the time is maybe right for additional dialogue and openness,' Bob Etheridge, a Democrat, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa Thursday night in Havana.

His comments came as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was about to arrive Friday in Spain, a country that she has criticized for relaunching a bilateral dialogue with Cuba.

Ahead of her trip, she bristled that a country like Spain 'that has been able to overcome its own authoritarian past' would be willing to talk with a 'regime that seems to be trying to set itself up for a non-democratic succession' in Cuba.

The five-member delegation from the US House of Representatives - the second US congressional delegation to Cuba in six months - included two other centre-left Democrats, Marion Berry and Rosa DeLauro, and two centre-right Republicans, Rodney Alexander and Jack Kingston.

'Certain members of this delegation have the feeling that we have this window of opportunity to work together,' Berry said.

Since ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro temporarily delegated power to his brother Raul last summer, the interim president has twice opened the hand to dialogue with the United States, but President George W Bush has so far refused the offers.

Berry said the presence of the delegation in Cuba showed that not all Americans agreed with Bush on the issue.

Berry said it didn't serve US interests to 'start saying bad things about' people and countries that don't agree with Washington.

'Look where that got us with the Europeans, with Western Europe. That relationship is probably in (the worst) shape since World War II,' he said.

For Berry, there is a simple explanation for the need of talking with Cuba: 'You catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar'.

Etheridge said that Congress has an obligation to fulfil its role, even if at odds with administration policy.

'We came here to learn, to listen and ... the four days have been an opportunity to learn on the ground rather than learn from a distance,' he said.

Etheridge and Berry supported demands to ease the US embargo against Cuba, which was tightened under Bush to restrict visits to Cuba by family members living in the US, and to limit cash flow between families.

The representatives were travelling with a US trade delegation that earlier this week sealed several food contracts with Cuba for over 118 million dollars - a sum that the congressmen said should be higher.

During the signing ceremony with the Cuban food import company ALIMPORT, they deplored US restrictions that limit a 'potentially important' market for US goods.

DeLauro called the agricultural negotiations held this week 'excellent' and 'very productive.'

The delegation met with high ranking Cuban officials including Parliament president Ricardo Alarcon.

For Etheridge, starting with trade could just be a first step towards a more open policy with Cuba.

'You have to start where you can and obviously the whole issue of agricultural trade is a good place to start,' he said.

After more than four decades of the US blockade, it was 'time to recognize that 90 miles from home there's an opportunity for people to travel, to trade and to have a relationship,' he said.

Berry said it was 'frustrating' that the Bush administration had not reciprocated the offers from Raul Castro, and instead ratcheted up the rhetoric.

'This is a wonderful opportunity. How many times do you get an opportunity to make friends with a nation that you haven't had such great relationship, where there is no risk to either part, where there is no downside for either part, where if you're able to bring the neighbours together, only good things happen?' asked Berry.

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