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The Castro Caucus

Why would 22 House members oppose a Cuban democracy bill?

9:00 AM, May 12, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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CRANKY CONSERVATIVES often dismiss symbolic pro-democracy legislation as so much claptrap. Of course everyone supports the flowering of liberty on foreign soil, they insist. Of course everyone wants to nourish oases of civil society in the deserts of despotism. So why bother with all these vacuous "Yay for freedom" acts? Aren't they kinda like resolving, "We love our Moms"? Shouldn't it go without saying that every member of Congress favors democrats over dictators?

Yes, it should. But then there's Cuba. To endorse the sociopolitical spadework of Cuban democrats is, of course, to rebuke Fidel Castro. And that, apparently, is too much for a handful of House Democrats--and one Republican--to stomach.

On Tuesday, the House passed a measure first introduced by Miami-area congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican. HR 193 expressed support for the Assembly to Promote the Civil Society in Cuba, an umbrella structure of over 360 dissident and civil society groups led by economist Marta Beatriz Roque.

The Diaz-Balart bill, which gained some 55 cosponsors, contained four basic planks:

(1) The House "extends its support and solidarity to the organizers and participants of the historic meeting of the Assembly to Promote the Civil Society in Cuba on May 20, 2005, in Havana."

(2) The House "urges the international community to support the Assembly's mission to bring democracy to Cuba."

(3) The House "urges the Administration and international community to actively oppose any attempts by the Castro regime to repress or punish the organizers and participants of the Assembly."

(4) The House "shares the pro-democracy ideals of the Assembly to Promote the Civil Society in Cuba and believes that this Assembly and others will hasten the day of freedom and democracy for the people of Cuba."

The legislation passed with 392 supporters--and 22 opponents.

Those voting "nay" included the following Democrats: Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Sam Farr (Calif.), Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.), Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio), Carolyn Kilpatrick (Mich.), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Jim McDermott (Wash.), Cynthia McKinney (Ga.), Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), George Miller (Calif.), John Olver (Mass.), Donald Payne (N.J.), Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), José Serrano (N.Y.), Pete Stark (Calif.), Edolphus Towns (N.Y.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), Maxine Waters (Calif.), and Lynn Woolsey (Calif.).

Joining the "nays" was Texas Republican Ron Paul, a maverick libertarian. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore voted "present."

This was perhaps not surprising, given a separate House vote on human rights in Cuba two weeks earlier. Another Cuban American, Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, had spearheaded a bill--with 56 cosponsors--to mark the second anniversary of Castro's massive anti-dissent crackdown and jailing of 75 opposition figures.

Among other things, the Menendez bill condemned the arrests, demanded the release of all Cuban political prisoners, and urged U.N. member countries to boot Havana off the Human Rights Commission (yes, Cuba currently has a seat).

But when it came up for a vote in late April, some 26 Democrats opposed it. This group consisted of all those Democrats who later rejected the Diaz-Balart bill, save four. (Reps. Conyers, Miller, and Udall backed the Menendez bill, while Rep. Jones didn't vote.)

The remaining Democratic opponents were Reps. Julia Carson (Ind.), Lacy Clay (Mo.), Danny Davis (Ill.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.), Bobby Rush (Ill.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.), and Albert Wynn (Md.).

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was again the lone Republican to vote "nay." Two Democrats, Reps. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) and Mel Watt (N.C.), voted "present." The Menendez bill passed 398-27.

What to make of all this? Well, for one thing, not all pro-democracy resolutions are created equal. Nor, it seems, are all freedom fighters. Cuba's small-d democrats, whatever their liberal credentials, are still viewed with suspicion by certain capital-d Democrats in America.

Put another way, Castro still has allies in the U.S. Congress--some witting, some perhaps not.

Duncan Currie is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.