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 U.S. government.
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 recent years.
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