State Department's Feet to Fire Over Possible Conditions on Opening of Cuba Embassy

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took the gavel of the Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee today to devote more hearing time to Cuba, he said, than he'd seen "in the four years I've been here."

The ranking member on the subcommittee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), accused Rubio and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) of representing the "status quo" on Cuba relations as President Obama plunges forward with a bold new policy.

But when it came time for a panel of Cuban human rights activists to testify, most of the members -- including Boxer -- were no longer on the dais.

Menendez called it "regretful that so many of our colleagues can't be here because this is the part of Cuba that we need to hear."

"It's easy to talk about democracy and human rights outside of a country that represses it," he added.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, who was in Havana last month to open normalization talks, said she was greeted warmly and thanked by Cubans on her trip.

"The president’s initiatives look forward and are designed to promote changes that support universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for every Cuban, as well as changes that promote our other national interests," Jacobson told the the committee. "They emphasize the value of people-to-people contact and very specific forms of increased commerce. We are already seeing indications that our updated approach gives us a greater ability to engage other nations in the hemisphere and around the world in promoting respect for fundamental freedoms in Cuba. It has also drawn considerably greater attention to the actions and policies of the Cuban government."

But Menendez said "18 months of secret negotiations produced a bad deal – bad for the Cuban people" as the administration "compromised bedrock principles for minimal concessions."

“At the end of the day, 53 political prisoners were released while so many more remain in jail – and the Cuban people – those who suffered most under the regime – still have zero guarantees for any basic freedoms. I’m also concerned that the 53 prisoners were not released unconditionally and continue to face legal hurdles. And that several of them have been re-arrested including Marcelino Abreu Bonora who was violently beaten by Cuban Security the day after Christmas and detained for two weeks," he said.

Other concerns of the senator: that the Red Cross and United Nations aren't getting the access to political prisoners announced by Obama, and that "there was not one substantial step toward transparent democratic elections, improved human rights, freedom of assembly, or the ability to form independent political parties and independent trade unions."

He added that "just two weeks after the announcement, the regime arrested more than 50 people who tried to speak about the future of their country."

“And now Raul Castro is demanding the return of Guantanamo and a full list of U.S concessions including compensation for the impact of the embargo – and, yet, he will concede nothing. How much more are we willing to give? How much more are we willing to do to help the Castro regime fill the coffers of its military monopolies while the Cuban people still struggle to make ends meet?" Menendez continued.

“It was a bad deal, and I will oppose any further changes to U.S. policy – any additional sanctions relief – that are not conditioned on clear, upfront concessions from the Castro regime that moves the Cuban people toward a free and open democratic government."

Rubio cited a top Cuban official, Josefina Vidal, saying recently that staff at a U.S. Embassy in Havana would not be permitted to interact with pro-democracy activists.

He asked Jacobson if "under no circumstances will the United States ever agree to limit the ability of our personnel to interact with democracy activists... as a condition of expanding our embassy operation."

"I don't know yet if that's a real condition on their part, but we could not accept that," Jacobson replied. "We could not accept not meeting with democracy activists and the broadest swath of Cubans possible."

Yet she downplayed the comments as something that might have just been said for public consumption -- an oft-heard State Department response for disturbing rhetoric coming out of Tehran.

Rubio pressed Jacobson on whether the administration would agree to that condition.

She danced around a yes or no answer, finally stating, "I can't imagine that we would go to the next stage of our agreement with an agreement not to see democracy activists."

Menendez said the administration can't lift up China as an example of how opening relations with a communist nation affects positive change, as the People's Republic commits human rights abuses such as forced abortions and cracks down on democracy activists in Tibet and Hong Kong.

"Despite everything that we have heard from the regime… they wanted exactly what you have largely given them, you elicited nothing in return," he said of the Cuba deal.

The senator also grilled Jacobson on the consideration to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, particularly as the Castros give safe haven to one of the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists, Joanne Chesimard. "Why was her return not part of the deal?" Menendez asked.

Jacobson acknowledged that Cuba has harbored or cooperated with terrorist entities.

Menendez suggested that the Obama administration negotiated a deal where the U.S. gets nothing "maybe because it would upset negotiations."

"At the end of the day, you got no concessions from the regime," he told Jacobson.

Testifying in a second panel were Rosa Maria Payá of the Cuban Christian Liberation Movement (daughter of slain dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas), president of the Cuban Ladies in White Berta Soler, activist Miriam Leiva, and historian Manuel Cuesta Morúa ( who "tried to be a lawyer until the regime determined that I could not be one").

"There cannot be free markets where there are no free persons," Payá said. "...The engagement would be fraudulent, if the United States were to accept the rule of the Cuban government. We have never asked our people to be isolated or embargoed, but engagement will only be real if it occurs between free peoples."

Leiva, who has been a dissident for more than 22 years, said she's been "subjected to surveillance, interrogations, harassment, and searches of my home," as well as losing her job and right to a pension.

In 2003, her late husband Oscar Espinosa Chepe was "imprisoned with 74 other peaceful Cubans,

and was sentenced to 20 years. Our only crimes have been speaking out, writing and seeking the well being of the Cuban people."

Soler declared "Cuba yes, Castro no" in the name of "those who have been executed by the firing squads, in the name of Cuban political prisoners... in the name of the victims of Cuba's Communist regime."