Cuba's Dissidents Are Speaking Up: Is Congress Listening?

06/10/2010 04:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Seventy-four of Cuba's most politically prominent dissidents -- including Miriam Leiva, the well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez, and the hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas -- have signed a letter to Members of the U.S. Congress asking them to support legislation to legalize travel to Cuba for all Americans and to increase sales of U.S. food to the island.

The Cuba Study Group made the letter public last night; it is an amazingly powerful read.

Invoking the memory of Pope John Paul II, the signers challenge the Congress to help "the world open itself to Cuba" by eliminating restrictions on the rights of Americans to travel to the island. Why? Because isolating Cubans from visits by Americans restricts the flow of information to the Cuban people. Why? Because filling Cuba's streets with U.S. tourists would be mark of our solidarity with Cuban society. Why? Because these restrictions violate our rights, and the dissidents oppose such limits in Cuba and the United States.

In some respects, these ideas are unremarkable, and should be comfortably familiar to Americans inside the Congress and out. As the dissidents write, openness was our policy toward the people of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, the cold warriors in Congress have never gotten the message when it comes to Cuba -- as we saw when Members of Congress denounced the idea of changing U.S. policy and opening up the island during hearings held in November of 2009 and in March of this year.

The hardliners always act as if they're speaking for the Cuban people, but the dissidents' letter demonstrates that they are simply wrong.

This spring, Congressman Mike Conaway (R-TX) told a packed hearing at the House Agriculture Committee: "I am not convinced that the lifting of the tourist travel will have any impact that would help us further our goal of freeing up the Cuban people."

But the dissidents write: "We are sure that isolation does not foster relationships of respect and support for people and groups around the world who are in favor of democratic changes in Cuba."

Last fall, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) asked derisively: "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?"

But dissidents took the idea of tourism to a higher level when they wrote: "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."

Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) disputed a panel of experts before the House Foreign Affairs Committee when he said: "Further relaxing the current travel and trade restrictions without reciprocal actions in Cuba only undermines our efforts to improve human rights and might embolden a Castro regime in its twilight."

But the dissidents write "the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests."

While Congressman Connie Mack bellowed: "This is a Castro bailout, Mr. Chairman ... a bailout for tyranny," the dissidents calmly write as if in reply, that travel would "offer solidarity and a bridge to facilitate the transition we Cubans so greatly desire."

And in a gentle rebuke to all Senators and House Members who believe they can force change in Cuba by keeping restrictions on the right of Americans to travel, the dissidents simply say: "Because the ability to travel freely is the right of every human being, we support this bill."

The policy makers who restrict the liberties of Americans exhibit such little faith in our own system that they seem hardly qualified to make pronouncements about Cuba's.

They could learn a little something about Cuba and the United States by reading - and heeding - what the dissidents are telling them.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the CDA, published this statement about the dissidents' letter.