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Sen. Jeff Flake Emerges as Obama's GOP Point Man on Cuba

By    |   Wednesday, 04 February 2015 06:12 PM

On the issue of normalizing relations with communist Cuba, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake appears to have emerged as the Obama administration's top Republican ally.

Flake, who has spent a decade in Congress pushing for the United States to ease the Cuban embargo, was asked by National Security Adviser Susan Rice to be the only Republican to travel to Havana on a secret flight to bring home Alan Gross, a jailed American citizen, the New York Times reported.

Gross had been incarcerated in Cuba since December 2009, where he was serving a 15-year prison sentence for providing Internet equipment to Cuban Jews under a program the communist government deems subversive.

The Obama administration's swap for the release of Alan Gross set free three Cuban spies who were convicted in a plot that led to the fatal shooting down of American pilots in 1996. The three were part of the "Cuban Five," an espionage ring that infiltrated exile groups and military installations in South Florida. They were ultimately convicted in 2001 and sentenced to long prison terms.

One of those freed in exchange for Gross, Gerardo Hernandez, had been serving two life sentences for conspiracy to murder the pilots. They had been flying missions for Brothers to the Rescue, an anti-Castro exile organization that aimed to help migrants at sea and also dropped propaganda leaflets.

The families of the murdered pilots said they were provided no warning of the trio's release from prison.

Flake, however, is not persuaded by claims that the deal he helped reach between the administration and Cuban leader Raul Castro was a bad one.

He has filed legislation to end the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba. Flake, who has visited Cuba nine times, calls the right to travel there "a freedom issue."

Last week, Flake joined Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and five other Republican senators in signing a letter to President Barack Obama calling for "reforms to restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba and the removal of hurdles that hamstring trade."

At a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Flake sat next to Sen. Marco Rubio as the latter grilled administration officials over their deal with Havana, one which the Florida Republican termed a "concession to tyranny."

Several Cuban dissidents testified that they welcomed the U.S. opening to Cuba. Two other activists, however, said the Castro regime had yielded little in talks with Washington.

"You can't do business with a tyrant," said Berta Soler, president of the dissident Cuban Ladies in White. Soler quoted Castro as saying Havana would not give up "one millimeter" of its control in dealing with the United States, adding that the defiant attitude raised fears that harassment and jailing of protesters would continue.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is himself Cuban-American, also questioned the Washington-Havana deal, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

"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," he said. "I'm also concerned that the 53 prisoners were not released unconditionally and continue to face legal hurdles."

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On the issue of normalizing relations with communist Cuba, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake appears to have emerged as the Obama administration's top Republican ally.
Jeff Flake, Cuba, relations, drop, embargo, Castro
Wednesday, 04 February 2015 06:12 PM
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