‘Nothing short of historic.’ Congress holds first hearing after Cuba protests.

The first congressional meeting to address widespread, pro-democracy protests that ricocheted throughout Cuba on July 11 turned into a referendum on the U.S. government’s longtime embargo.

The two witnesses at the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s hearing on Tuesday were split on the issue. As were the members of Congress from both parties in attendance.

José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s executive director of the Americas, urged an end to the embargo, calling it an “ongoing policy of isolation.” Rosa María Payá, the director of Cuba Decide and the daughter of the late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, said the U.S. should aggressively sanction any 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 continued human rights abuses by the Cuban regime, including the jailing of political opponents and violence toward protesters, but both stressed that their on-the-ground knowledge in Cuba is limited due to the regime’s continued attempts to block and control internet access.

“There are 532 detained and missing persons but we estimate the actual number to be in the thousands,” Payá said, adding that Congress should make “full use” of the Magnitsky Act, a bill that authorizes the president to freeze the assets of human rights abusers and prevent them from entering the U.S.

The Democrats and Republicans at the hearing, 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 the U.S. should prod its allies to speak out more forcefully in favor of the protests on July 11th.

But other actions sparked disagreement.

Salazar criticizes Biden’s response

Salazar, a Cuban-American Miami Republican, said she’s been frustrated by the Biden administration’s response, which includes a review of increasing embassy staff in Havana and a working group to consider remittances for families. Republicans in Congress were not informed of the policy changes in advance, and Salazar argued that the review of embassy staff and remittances amounts to window dressing.

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

Salazar, who touted the prospect of “high-altitude stratospheric balloons” to create aerial WiFi networks last week, said Tuesday the Biden administration should consider boosting internet capabilities in the vicinity of the U.S Embassy in Havana and the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base.

“You can put a tower in Guantánamo and you will give some coverage so people will know whatever happens on the streets,” Salazar said to the Miami Herald after the hearing. “You can take some videos and you can upload them. It’s time for [the world] to see what the Cubans are doing and what they’re saying.”

When pressed for specifics, Salazar said the Department of Defense should have capabilities to increase the reach of internet signals from U.S. territory, and that the Cuban exile community would help fund internet efforts if the Biden administration isn’t willing to do so.

Rep. Alibo Sires, a Cuban-American New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Western Hemisphere Committee and does not support lifting the embargo, agreed that restoring and expanding internet access should be a major priority for the Biden administration but was unconvinced that there was anything the U.S. alone could do to circumvent Cuba’s network blockages.

“Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet to solve this problem,” Sires said. “What we have witnessed over the last week in Cuba is nothing short of historic.”

Floridians show up

Two of the Floridians present on Tuesday, Demings and Wasserman Schultz, aren’t 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 that includes portions of Miami-Dade County while Demings, a Democrat who represents the Orlando area, is running to challenge Cuban-American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2022 election.

Their presence highlighted the importance of Cuba policy in South Florida — and the perceived strength of the GOP among Cuban-American voters in Miami after the 2020 election.

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

“Everything depends on Cuba, an LGBTQ organization that’s trying to develop their own approach, their own policies, are not allowed, are prohibited, unless you’re part of the official structure,” Payá said.

Wasserman Schultz reiterated that she opposes ending the embargo. Demings didn’t initially take a position on the embargo when asked by a Miami Herald reporter. Ending the embargo is a position that is popular among progressive Democrats.

“The people in the streets, whether they’re on the island or in South Florida … are crying desperately for freedom and they wanted the United States to stand with them in that effort,” Demings said. “They are not in the street calling for an embargo, they are asking for freedom.”

Demings spokesperson Dan Gleick followed up in an email to clarify that she opposes ending the embargo.

“She doesn’t support lifting the embargo and believes that we need to … take tangible steps to support the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom,” Gleick said.

U.S. politics drives Cuba responses

While the members of Congress were in agreement on Cuba’s human rights abuses and Republican Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee wore a “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”) T-shirt while questioning witnesses, any future discussions of Cuba policy in a nearly evenly divided Congress are likely to be viewed through a political lens ahead of the 2022 election.

Wasserman Schultz began her questioning by pointing out that Biden left in place former President Donald Trump’s Cuba policy, which was popular with Cuban-Americans in Miami.

She then attacked Republicans for their support of democracy in Cuba while backing restrictions on voting in the U.S.

“I really think the audacity of those in the Republican Party, who widely across this country support voter suppression and throw obstacles in the path of people in this country who simply want to cast their lawful and constitutional right to vote and who have denied January 6th was an insurrection, have a lot of nerve suggesting that they are the champions of freedom,” Wasserman Schultz said.

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

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