Lawmakers slam Obama's 'secret' Cuba talks

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said President Obama left members of Congress and most of his administration in the dark when negotiating the plan to normalize relations with Cuba, and they criticized the deal struck between the U.S. and Havana.

“Instead of dismantling a 50-year-old failed policy, as it claims, the administration may have given a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life to continue its repression at home and militant support for Marxist regimes abroad,” committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said during a committee hearing Wednesday. 

Had Obama consulted his staff, Royce said, he would have learned that Havana is at risk of losing its Venezuelan oil subsidies. At a time when the U.S. could have asserted leverage, he said, the U.S. offered a lifeline. 

“Pro-democracy and human rights activists have lamented that human rights weren’t part of these secret negotiations,” Royce said. “We have no indication that the Cuban government intends to give ground.” 

But Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Obama’s executive action was not a concession or a gift. 

“It’s a channel of communications,” she said. “We believe that we can more effectively pursue the human rights policies and empower the Cuban people by having a direct channel with the Cuban government to address those concerns.” 

The Obama administration issued regulations earlier this month that allow travelers who qualify under a dozen broad categories of authorized travel to visit the country without applying for a license. 

Those categories include visiting family, conducting business, journalism, government meetings, research, education, religious purposes, public performances, athletic competitions and humanitarian projects. But Americans are still not allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism. 

The policy change will also ease banking and export restrictions. 

But Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) said he doesn’t see how the president’s actions will help the Cuban people. 

“I just don’t see where we’re headed with this,” he said. “I know it’s the last two years of the presidency. I know he has a history to build, but I was disappointed that we’re not using this as a pressure point on a government that’s been so brutal.”

Though Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said Obama was within his rights to ease relations with Cuba, he said the Cuba government has to give certain concessions before the U.S. lifts it trade embargo. 

The onus, he said, is now on the Cuban government to create free fair elections and a free press, release political prisoners and end the harassments of political activists.