Cuban Dissident Leaders Call for Lifting Travel Ban

Hardliners opposed to lifting the travel ban to Cuba have been among the staunchest champions of the Communist island's increasingly vocal dissident movement. But a letter released Thursday by 74 of the Cuba's most prominent dissenters undermines some of the key arguments made by leaders of Miami's exile community.

"We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government, while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society," read the letter quoted by AP.

Among those signing the letter were blogger Yoani Sanchez; hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas; Elizardo Sanchez, who heads Cuba's top human rights group, and Miriam Leiva, who helped found the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of jailed dissidents.

The letter was released by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based group that backs a proposal that would bar the president from stopping travel to Cuba or bank transfers, making it easier to import U.S. goods into Cuba.

Hardliners - who have been known to blow the legs off a radio talk show host who dared question the wisdom of the failed half-century-old embargo--will likely see little merit in the dissidents' letter. So will those who have made tightening the screws on the Castro regime a cornerstone of their foreign policy.

When the idea of lifting the travel ban was brought up last year, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Miami, mocked the idea: "How could anyone credibly argue that lounging on the beaches of Varadero or partying in the nightclubs until the wee hours of the night will bring freedom and democracy to the Cuban people?"

Florida Congressman Connie Mack called it "a Castro bailout... a bailout for tyranny."
But dissidents on the island disagree. "The supportive presence of American citizens, their direct help, and the many opportunities for exchange, used effectively and in the desired direction, would not be an abandonment of Cuban civil society but rather a force to strengthen it," they wrote in the letter.

Asked what she thought of the letter, Ros-Lehtinen said, "There are many differing opinions on the lifting of travel restrictions on American citizens on non-family visits. I value all opinions and I'm not the owner of the truth on any issue.

"I have my opinion and others have theirs. Being a Congresswoman does not mean that my opinion has more or less legitimacy than those of local constituents, dissidents or any other valued group. All opinions have value. I don't think that lifting these restrictions will bring the Cuban people closer to freedom's dawn. Others disagree. What else is new?"

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