Dissidents decry US bill to end Cuba travel ban
By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- Five days after his release for health reasons, a former Cuban
political prisoner added his name to a letter signed by nearly 500
opposition activists decrying proposed legislation that would lift the
U.S. travel ban to their country.
The letter, e-mailed to foreign reporters in Havana on Thursday, took
the opposite approach of a statement last week supporting the same bill
and signed by 74 dissidents, many with international notoriety -
including Cuba's top blogger Yoani Sanchez, and Elizardo Sanchez, who is
not related to Yoani but heads the island's top human rights group.
The bill in question was introduced Feb. 23 by Rep. Collin Peterson, a
Minnesota Democrat, and would bar the president from prohibiting travel
to Cuba or blocking transactions required to make such trips.
It also would halt the White House from stopping direct transfers
between U.S. and Cuban banks. That would make it easier for the island's
government to pay for U.S. food and farm exports, which have been
allowed for a decade, despite Washington's 48-year-old trade embargo.
Thursday's letter said, "to be benevolent with the dictatorship would
mean solidarity with the oppressors of the Cuban nation." It featured
492 signers from all over Cuba, but most were little-known, even among
the island's small and divided dissident and political opposition community.
One exception was Ariel Sigler, a 44-year-old who is paralyzed from the
waist down and who was freed to much fanfare Saturday. He was released
to his home in Matanzas province after serving more than seven years of
a 25-year sentence for treason.
Sigler was among 75 leading opposition activists, community organizers,
dissidents and independent journalists rounded up in March 2003 - when
the world's attention was focused on the start of the Iraq war - and
charged with taking money from Washington to destabilize Cuba's
government. Those imprisoned denied that, as did U.S. officials.
Sigler went to prison a boxer in excellent shape, but became confined to
a wheelchair while behind bars.
His release and the recent transfer of 12 other prisoners of conscience
to jails closer to their homes is the result of negotiations between the
Roman Catholic Church and the government of Raul Castro to improve the
plight of political prisoners.
Other signers of the letter include Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, or Altunez,
an Afro-Cuban dissident who has used hunger strikes in the past to
protest the treatment of political prisoners in Cuba, and Reina Luis
Tamayo, mother of prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died
in February after a lengthy prison hunger strike.
While travel to Cuba is technically not illegal, U.S. law bars most
Americans from spending money here. Cuban-Americans, journalists,
politicians and a few others can visit with special permission from the
Peterson's bill must pass the House Committee on Agriculture before it
can go to a vote by the full House, and Thursday's letter was addressed
to members of that committee as well as all members of Congress.
A string of similar measures to expand travel to and trade with Cuba
have died without reaching a full vote by either the House or Senate in