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Rep. Sires Pushes Back Against Obama's Cuba Plans


President Obama's surprise move to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba got a mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. And while the president's announcement will dramatically alter the relationship between the two countries, he still needs congressional support to fully lift the decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba. For more on that, we turned to Congressman Albio Sires. He's a Democrat from New Jersey who was born in Cuba and joins us right now from his home. Good morning.

REPRESENTATIVE ALBIO SIRES: Good morning, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Now, you said yesterday that the joyous homecoming of Alan Gross, the American just released from Cuban detention, was, as you put it, marred by the president's announcement about normalizing relationships. How so?

SIRES: Well, very simply I think this is the wrong time to make such concessions to Cuba. Alan Gross should've never been in jail. Alan Gross should've been released right away. And the other issues that I have is that in New Jersey, we had a state trooper by the name of Forrester, who was killed by JoAnne Chesimard, who has been living in Cuba for 30 years. Now, JoAnne Chesimard is on the FBI terrorist list as the number-one person they want. And nobody seems to talk about bringing her to justice in the United States.

MONTAGNE: So you're talking about - the U.S. didn't get enough for what it gave. But perhaps - but let me just ask you - the president pointed out yesterday that this standoff has gone on for 50 years and that the Castro's are still in power. What good, may I ask, would more years do?

SIRES: Well, you know, if sanctions were not - it's the only way that we have - oppression in the Cuban government - to ease some repression on the Cuban people. But if sanctions did not work, why do we bother putting sanctions on Russia? And why do we bother putting sanctions on Iran? So this is the only weapon that we have to pressure the Cuban government to stop the repression in Cuba. I mean, Cuba has in jail more people this year than in the previous 10 years.

MONTAGNE: Right, but the...

SIRES: And people are still demonstrate, are still getting beat up on the street. Women and - they're beat up on the streets. The human rights in Cuba are horrendous. So we don't have too many weapons other than the sanctions that we put on Cuba.

MONTAGNE: But what do you say to the argument that oppression will be best fought by exposure to the outside world, which is now pretty much denied to Cuban people?

SIRES: Renee, we tried that with Vietnam. Look where we're going. We tried that with Burma. Look where Burma is. And you just have to look at China. Everybody says we do commerce with China. We do commerce with Vietnam. But that's not the type of country that I want for Cuba. I don't want a society that they cannot express themselves. I don't want to say they have no freedom of press. I want a Cuba that's a democracy where people can express their different feelings.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me ask you just a last question in the few seconds we have left. Isn't it fair to say that we've seen real change under Raul Castro? He's credited with making economic reforms that Fidel Castro resisted. He's released political prisoners. Is there no credit for movement towards change?

SIRES: Well, I disagree with changes. First of all, the changes that are made in Cuba are - all the business are government-owned. Most of the generals own - even the biggest hotel in Cuba - are the ones they run. It's a government apparatus that runs this. And in terms of releasing prisoners, there were more people in jail now this year than has been in the past.

MONTAGNE: So will you fight lifting the embargo?

SIRES: Absolutely. I think this the only way that we have put pressure on Cuba. I am the only member in Congress that lived in Cuba during the Castro era. I have vivid memories of what it was to live in Cuba.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. New Jersey Democratic Congressman Albio Sires. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.