WASHINGTON — Drawing on Reagan-era successes in undermining communism in Eastern Europe, a group of senators introduced legislation Wednesday to promote democracy in Cuba by providing dissidents cash, fax machines, telephones and other items.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the proposed package of $100 million in aid over four years is “a blueprint for a more vigorous U.S. policy to liberate the enslaved island of Cuba.”
He said the program would supplement the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward the island for 39 years.
The legislation was endorsed by the Cuban-American National Foundation, the largest and most influential of the anti-communist Cuban exile groups. The bipartisan initiative has the support of 10 other senators, and companion legislation in the House is backed by more than 90 members.
The Bush administration withheld immediate comment.
Helms’ remarks on the Senate floor, and those of supporters at a news conference, were reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s support for pro-democracy groups in Poland. That effort helped bring down decades of communist rule there in 1989.
In Poland, the opposition rallied around Solidarnosc, the Solidarity labor union. The legislation introduced Wednesday is the Cuban Solidarity Act of 2001.
“The investment we made in the liberation of Eastern Europe has yielded immeasurable benefits,” Helms said.
He said the legislation would give the president a mandate to increase all forms of U.S. support for pro-democracy and human rights activists in Cuba. In addition to office machines, he said it could also include food, medicines, books, educational material and financial support.
Recipients may include political prisoners and family members, persecuted dissidents or repatriated persons, workers’ rights activists, economists, journalists, environmentalists and others.
Activities may include support for independent libraries or agricultural cooperatives, support for microenterprise development by self-employed Cubans, U.S.-based exchange programs and nongovernmental charities.
Cuba has been highly successful in preventing dissident groups from flourishing. Criticism of the government is permitted, but efforts toward political organization by dissidents usually are quashed through intimidation and other means. President Fidel Castro has been especially scornful of dissidents who receive support from the United States.
In January, Cuban authorities arrested two Czechs – one a parliamentarian – and alleged they had planned to deliver a portable computer, diskettes and CD-ROMs to dissidents with the help of Freedom House, a New York-based human rights group. The Czechs were held for 25 days and released only after they admitted breaking the law by meeting with dissidents.
Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban-American National Foundation, said the prospect that some Cuban dissidents might be imprisoned as a result of receiving U.S. help “should not be a reason for us not to do the right thing.”
He said dissidents are imprisoned in Cuba irrespective of whether they receive outside help.
Joining Mas at a news conference was Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., last year’s Democratic nominee for vice president.
“Our foreign policy is at its best when it is based on values,” Lieberman said in endorsing the Solidarity legislation.
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., added a bilingual touch, saying in both Spanish and English: “Help is on the way.”
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said the legislation would add a new dimension to U.S. policy toward the nearby island. Once it is enacted, Graham said, “U.S. policy will no longer be simply to isolate the Castro regime but to support those working to bring about change inside Cuba.”
On the Net: Sen. Jesse Helms: http://helms.senate.gov/
Other senators: http://www.senate.gov/senators/index.cfm
CIA profile of Cuba: http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/cu.html
Library of Congress profile of Poland: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/pltoc.html