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“Nothing less than historic.  Congress holds its first hearing after protests in Cuba.

The first congressional meeting to address the widespread pro-democracy protests that ricocheted across Cuba on July 11 turned into a referendum on the US government’s long-standing embargo.

The two witnesses at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday were divided on the issue. As were members of Congress from both parties present.

José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s executive director for the Americas, called for an end to the embargo, calling it a “continuing policy of isolation.” Rosa María Payá, director of Cuba Decide and daughter of late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, said the United States should aggressively sanction all Cubans who hurt pro-democracy protesters and insisted that “all options under international law must be on the table ”.

Vivanco and Payá briefed lawmakers on the ongoing human rights violations by the Cuban regime, including the imprisonment of political opponents and violence against protesters, but both stressed that their knowledge on the ground in Cuba is limited. due to the regime’s continued attempts to block and control Internet access.

“There are 532 people detained and missing, but we estimate the real number at thousands,” Payá said, adding that Congress should make “full use” of the Magnitsky Law, a bill that allows the president to freeze. human assets. abusers and prevent them from entering the United States

Democrats and Republicans in attendance, including Florida U.S. Reps Maria Elvira Salazar, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Val Demings, agreed that sanctions should be considered in response to the protests and that the United States should push their allies to speak more forcefully in favor of the July 11 protests.

But other actions have sparked disagreements.

Salazar criticizes Biden’s response

Salazar, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, said she was frustrated with the Biden administration’s response, which includes a review of the increase in embassy staff in Havana and a task force to review remittances for families. Republicans in Congress were not given advance notice of policy changes, and Salazar argued that reviewing embassy staff and remittances amounts to a facade.

“After a week of silence from the Biden administration, it was a slap in the face for you, your father and the elected officials who were not informed,” Salazar told Payá, referring to his father’s death in 2012 in a mysterious car accident. “At a minimum, the Biden administration should connect Cubans to the Internet.”

Salazar, who touted the prospect of “high-altitude stratospheric balloons” to create overhead WiFi networks last week, said on Tuesday that the Biden administration should consider building internet capacity near the US embassy in Havana. and the Guantánamo Bay naval base.

“You can set up a tower at Guantanamo and you will give some cover so people know what is going on on the streets,” Salazar told the Miami Herald after the hearing. “You can take videos and download them. It’s time to [the world] to see what Cubans are doing and what they are saying.

When asked for details, Salazar said the Defense Department should have the ability to increase the range of internet signals from US territory, and that the Cuban community in exile would help fund internet efforts if l The Biden administration was unwilling to do so.

Representative Alibo Sires, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey who chairs the Western Hemisphere Committee and does not support lifting the embargo, agreed that restoring and expanding internet access should be a top priority for the Biden administration, but was not convinced there was anything only the United States could do to bypass blockages in the Cuban network.

“Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to fix this problem,” Sires said. “What we witnessed last week in Cuba is simply historic. “

Floridians introduce themselves

Two of the Floridians in attendance on Tuesday, Demings and Wasserman Schultz, are not members of the Foreign Affairs Committee but joined the discussion to highlight the efforts of Afro-Cubans in the ongoing protests. Wasserman Schultz is a Democrat who represents thousands of Cubans in her Broward-based district which includes parts of Miami-Dade County while Demings, a Democrat who represents the Orlando area, is running to challenge the Cuban-American Senator. American Marco Rubio in 2022. election.

Their presence underscored the importance of Cuban politics in South Florida – and the perceived strength of the GOP among Cuban-American voters in Miami after the 2020 election.

“I hope we will stay focused on freedom and not on the destructive politics of the day,” Demings said, before questioning Payá and Vivanco on the Cuban government’s opposition to civil society groups representing Afro-Cubans. and LGBTQ Cubans.

“It all depends on Cuba, an LGBTQ organization that tries to develop its own approach, its own policies, are not allowed, are prohibited, unless you are part of the official structure,” Payá said.

Wasserman Schultz reiterated that she opposed the lifting of the embargo. Demings did not initially take a position on the embargo when asked by a Miami Herald reporter. Lifting the embargo is a popular position among progressive Democrats.

“The people on the streets, whether they are on the island or in South Florida… are crying desperately for freedom and they wanted the United States to support them in this effort,” Demings said. “They are not in the streets demanding an embargo, they are asking for freedom. “

Demings spokeswoman Dan Gleick responded in an email to make it clear that she is opposed to ending the embargo.

“She does not support the lifting of the embargo and believes that we must (…) take concrete measures to support the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom,” said Gleick.

US policy motivates Cuba’s responses

While members of Congress agreed on human rights violations in Cuba and Republican Representative Mark Green of Tennessee wore a “Patria y Vida(“Homeland and Life”) T-shirt when questioning witnesses, any future discussion of Cuban politics in an almost equally divided Congress will likely be viewed from a political perspective ahead of the 2022 elections.

Wasserman Schultz began his questioning by pointing out that Biden had left in place the Cuban policies of former President Donald Trump, who were popular with Cuban Americans in Miami.

She then attacked Republicans for supporting democracy in Cuba while supporting voting restrictions in the United States.

“I really think of the audacity of those in the Republican Party, who across the country are supporting voter suppression and putting obstacles in the way of people in this country who just want to assert their legal and constitutional right to vote and who denied Jan. 6 was an insurgency, have a lot of nerve in suggesting they are the champions of freedom, ”said Wasserman Schultz.

As Wasserman Schultz spoke, Republican Representative for New York, Nicole Malliotakis, a Cuban-American whose mother fled the Castro regime, muttered “that’s a lie.”

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