Dissident's visit warms Washington's Cuba Cold War

WASHINGTON Tue Mar 19, 2013 3:59pm EDT

Cuba's best-known dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez listens to a question after she delivered a speech to students of the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Cuba's best-known dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez listens to a question after she delivered a speech to students of the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City March 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Henry Romero

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A visit to the Congress on Tuesday by Cuba's best-known dissident may have slightly narrowed one of Washington's long-standing political gaps - the angry dispute over the U.S. embargo against the Communist government in Havana.

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez met on Tuesday with both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, including some of the staunchest Cuban-American supporters of the 53-year-old economic embargo against her country.

In the past, some hard-liners have been reluctant to voice strong support for Cuban dissidents who want major changes in U.S. policy, including ending the ban on most trade between the United States and the Caribbean island nation.

Sanchez was first invited to Capitol Hill by two Florida Democrats, Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American who promotes President Barack Obama's easing of restrictions on Cuba and backs expanded U.S. travel to the island.

But she also met with prominent Cuban-American Republicans who strongly support the continuation of the tough restrictions, including Florida Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

Sanchez says the embargo is an excuse for the Cuban government to blame the country's economic problems on the United States, rather than its own policies. But embargo supporters say any easing would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to prop up the island's government.

'UNITY IN THE CAUSE'

"There has not been a change in attitude or position about dissidents who advocate for freedom and democracy in Cuba," said Ros-Lehtinen, one of the top Republicans on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. "Our goals remain the same and there is unity in the cause. We disagree on how to reach that goal and it has been that way and will continue."

Cuba is in a period of potential change. President Raul Castro has been pushing through cautious reforms such as the elimination of travel restrictions that allowed Sanchez to make her 80-day tour of more than a dozen countries.

The country also lost a major financial sponsor and counterbalance to U.S. influence in Latin America with the death this month of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez' hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is expected to continue the country's support for Cuba if he wins the presidential election next month.

Castro, 81, who succeeded his ailing older brother Fidel as president in 2008, announced last month that he would step down as president after his second term ends in 2018.

Sanchez, 37, has been blogging since 2007, attracting an audience of half a million people for posts about the hardships of life in Cuba. She also uses Twitter to denounce repression.

She visited Washington after a stop in New York. She is due to visit Miami, the center of Cuban-American life in the United States and home to her sister and niece, on April 1.

Protesters who back Cuba's government have heckled Sanchez at several stops during her tour.

(Editing by Warren Strobel)

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