U.S.-Cuba PAC Money May Have Changed Votes
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A House committee, today, asks if it's time to lift the 47-year-old ban on travel to Cuba. A group of Cuban Americans is urging lawmakers to keep sanctions in place, even as the Obama administration has eased some other restrictions. And yesterday, a human rights group called for an end to the U.S. economic embargo. NPR's Peter Overby has this report on the changing politics of Cuban-American relations.
PETER OVERBY: Human Rights Watch director, Jos� Miguel Vivanco, says Cuba has turned more repressive since Raul Castro took over for his brother Fidel.
Mr. JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO (Director, Human Rights Watch): Cuba will not curb its abuses unless it is pressured by the international community to do so.
OVERBY: But in his next breath Vivanco said this.
Mr. VIVANCO: The U.S. embargo has imposed indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people, while doing nothing to improve the situation of human rights on the island.
OVERBY: But that embargo is the only thing that will work, according to the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. It says Washington has to stand firm against U.S. tourism and trade with Cuba. The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC drizzles money over Congress, not big checks, often just $1,000, but it adds up, especially when the PACs donors give more from their own bank accounts.
Dr. DAVID DONNELLY (Public Campaign): $10.8 million is what we identified in this report.
OVERBY: That's David Donnelly with the advocacy group Public Campaign. It calls for public financing of Congressional races and it just analyzed the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC money trail.
Mr. DONNELLY: Their voices are speaking much more loudly than the voices of regular Americans who believe these policies ought to be changed.
OVERBY: Polls do show that Americans want more commerce with Cuba, and for a while Congress was moving that way. Agriculture and business interests rejoiced when Congress approved food sales to Cuba in 2000. At the same time, the old anti-Castro groups were fading away. Then in 2003, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC was formed. It doesn't use a phalanx of lobbyists, just some friends in Congress and its donors.
Mauricio Claver-Carone is on the PACs board of directors. He says the PAC is battling the Chamber of Commerce and other big business lobbies.
Mr. MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONE (U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC): Our agenda is to condition business to the human rights and democratic reforms and the freedom of our people. And that is our vested interest and we're proud of that.
OVERBY: Proud, too, of their campaign contributions. Public Campaign found that 18 House members changed their stand as the PACs money started coming to them. When California Democrat Adam Schiff changed course, the PAC gave him $1,000 the next day. His office declined to comment.
Another switcher was Republican Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. For him it was 16 days before the first contribution landed. His press secretary said other lawmakers briefed Whitfield on the Cuban government's repressive policies and the Bush White House wanted to maintain the sanctions. Claver-Carone says the PAC will keep working, because they saw what happened before when they stopped working Capitol Hill.
Mr. CLAVER-CARONE: What happens is that business interests and others that we can't compete with take over.
OVERBY: And, he's quick to add, it is legal to make campaign contributions.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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