By Erika Bolstad
Three Cuban dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown and imprisoned until their exile last year to Spain, brought their story to Capitol Hill Thursday.
The three were sponsored by European Union politicians who hope to build a trans-Atlantic coalition to put as much international pressure on Cuba as possible.
"They've been in the belly of the beast, they know what it's like to live there," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said of the three: independent journalist Normando Hernández González, Regis Iglesias Ramírez of the Varela Project and former Nueva Prensa Cubana Director José Luís García Paneque.
"And they know what a difficult struggle it is to get international solidarity to the cause that we all are in agreement with," Ros-Lehtinen said, "and that is the promotion of democracy, of freedom, of human rights, multi-party elections, freedom to express one's ideas, and freedom to pray to a God of our choosing."
All three were arrested by Cuban authorities as part of Fidel Castro’s crackdown on dozens of dissidents and activists in what became known as the Black Spring of 2003. They were released under an agreement negotiated by the Spanish government and Cuba’s highest-ranking Catholic, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
One of the former political prisoners, Iglesias, said he met Wednesday in Dallas with former U.S. President George W. Bush and the former president of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar. He said he aimed to bring forth the message of a "Free Cuba," and not just in the economic sense some Cubans have seen recently.
"The fact is that more than the power to purchase cars or houses, Cubans need freedom, free elections, respect to individual freedoms," he said.
Hernandez, who spent more than seven years in prison and now lives in Miami, said his aim was to "bring awareness about the experience we have lived through."
He warned that economic freedom "does not bring freedom nor democracy to a people, and certainly not to a country under an iron tyranny for 52 years."
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, called it a "huge privilege" to spend time with with the three. They represent the best of what is in Cuba, said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami.
"People who are willing to risk their lives, their liberties, sacrifice friends and relationships on the island," Rivera said, including leaving everything "for the cause of a free and democratic Cuba. They demonstrate to the world of what is going on on the island."
Isabel Morales, a special correspondent for El Neuvo Herald, contributed to this report.