- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

MIAMI (AP) - The chairman of a congressional panel torched the Obama administration’s policy toward Cuba and Venezuela at a field hearing Friday to review the human rights records of both Latin American countries.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said the administration “has made no real effort with the Cubans to prioritize human rights or property claims issues” following the historic rapprochement between the former Cold War foes.

In its relations with Venezuela, the South Carolina Republican said the U.S. has seen “no results” from talks between the U.S. State Department and the government led by President Nicolas Maduro.

The three-hour hearing was held in Miami, home to hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles who escaped the longtime communist nation and Venezuelan immigrants who fled the socialist South American country.

Duncan said Cuban President Raul Castro’s government averaged 741 “arbitrary detentions” per month last year and that it rose to 882 during Pope Francis’ historic visit in September. He added that more than 6,000 people were arrested and detained in the first 10 months of this year. He said nearly 9,000 Americans owned property that was confiscated after Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Duncan said Venezuelan state security forces attempting to quell unarmed student protests injured 900 people and left more than 43 dead. He called Maduro’s recently announced human rights plans “laughable” at a time “when human rights atrocities continue unabated.”

Two panels of witnesses_one focused on Cuba, the other on Venezuela_condemned the human rights records of both countries and called for the U.S. to support dissidents and opposition leaders.

Cuban political activist Antonio Rodiles, leader of the relatively hardline dissident group Estado de SATS, said the Cuban government is aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran to “prolong the denial of fundamental rights and freedoms to the Cuban people.”

He added that Maduro is “a puppet regime” that is “directly run by Castroite advisers at the behest of the dictatorship in Havana.”

Rep. Alan Grayson, an Orlando Democrat and a committee member, took issue with the criticism leveled at the Obama administration when “the perpetrator is the Cuban government.”

He said the longstanding U.S.-Cuba policy needed to be changed because it had failed to bring freedom and democracy to Cuba. He pressed the Cuban witnesses on this point.

Rodiles countered that Cuba’s government remains “an authoritarian regime” despite having open diplomatic and economic relations for years with Canada and Spain.

In highlighting Venezuela’s “ice cold” climate on freedom and human rights, Duncan pointed to the case of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

Lopez was convicted in September in “a sham trial” for inciting violence during a 2014 anti-government protest in Caracas. He was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison.

Lopez insisted he never called for violence, but prosecutors argued that violence was implicit in his calls for Maduro’s resignation. He has been one of the primary leaders of the hardline opposition to Maduro.

Lopez’ sister, Adriana Lopez Vermut, told the panel Friday that her brother “is in jail because of his ideas.” She described his trial as a “farce” because the prosecution called more than 100 witnesses but did not allow him in his defense to present a single witnesses or any evidence.

She said her brother sits half his time in solitary confinement in a seven-by-ten-foot cell, denied the right to visitors, including his wife, and not allowed writing materials.

“We routinely fear for Leopoldo’s life and we fear for our own as well,” she said.

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