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Ex-Political Cuban Prisoners Speak Out

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

Ex-Political Cuban Prisoners Speak Out

Congressmen Chris Smith (NJ-4th) and Frank Wolf (VA-10th), leading human rights advocates in Congress, held a press conference today with former Cuban prisoners, Cuban refugees and Cuban human rights advocates regarding a Congressional Delegation's trip to Cuba this week and meeting with Fidel Castro, and his brother Raul, who is currently running Cuba. Human rights issues were ignored by the American delegation, even as Cuba pushes for normalized relations with the United States in order to exploit the American tourism market and commercial interests.

In February Smith and Wolf were denied entry into Cuba. In contrast, this week seven Democratic Members of the House of Representatives traveled to Cuba and met with Raul Castro and Fidel Castro.

"I—and many others—are profoundly disappointed that Members of Congress have again traveled to a totalitarian country and failed to visit prisoners of conscience all of whom are systematically abused, tortured, starved and degraded," said Smith, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. "They failed to visit their harassed families. They failed to visit courageous human rights advocates on the island who risk all on a daily basis. Today Representative Wolf and I make a third official request for a visa to Cuba. Of course, I will say up front that, if we are granted a visa, we will raise questions of human rights, and we will try to visit political prisoners." (click here to view Cong. Smith's full remarks.)

Wolf said that any Member of Congress or any U.S. government official who goes to Cuba, should make a point to meet with dissidents and their families.

"If the Cuban government wants to turn a new page in their relations with the U.S., they could start by releasing the hundreds of prisoners of conscience presently languishing behind bars," Wolfe said. "They could embrace the free exchange of ideas and press freedom. The Cuban government could eliminate restrictions on the freedom of assembly. They could allow people to worship free from the control of the state. Until that happens, until the Cuban government no longer is described by our own State Department as a totalitarian state, I strongly believe that the sanctions against Cuba should remain in place."

Smith, a newly appointed House Delegate to the United Nations, and Wolf, have been attempting a humanitarian visit to check on political prisoners in the island nation. Smith is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. He had expected to travel to Cuba in February with Wolf, but the government has refused to allow the visit by not providing a visa.

Also speaking were Lázaro Miranda, who spent nine years in Cuban prisons and Felix Cifuentes, an African-Cuban spent six years in prison. Through an interpreter Cifuentes warned that Cuba's abuses were not a racial issue, but a matter of denying basic liberties like freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Frank Calzon, Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba suggested the Members of the returning U.S. delegation should speak out on behalf of the political prisoners and their families.

"We all welcome a dialogue," said Calzon, a Cuban-born refugee and a graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey, referring to statement from the U.S. delegation that expressed support for dialogue. "But how can we hope to have a dialogue when Congressmen Smith and Congressman Frank Wolf can't even enter the country?"

He added hope that the returning U.S. delegation should call on the Cuban government to free the hundreds of political prisoners languishing in Cuban prisons.

"I don't think it's too late for those returning congressmen and congresswomen to come out now and ask for the political prisoners to be released," Calzon said. "They should do it as soon as possible."

"They left Cuba gushing with praise for the Castros and their regime," said a disappointed Smith. "One Member said: ‘During my visit to Cuba, I experienced freedom of travel, freedom of religion and the freedom of speech.' Although one Member did bring up ‘the suffering of political prisoners,' unfortunately he was talking about five convicted Cuban spies serving sentences in American prisons."

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