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Want to 'get tough' on Cuba? Sic 'em with U.S. spring break tourists, senator says

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 7:04 AM EST, Fri January 25, 2013
Sen. Jeff Flake says allowing Americans to travel to Cuba is
Sen. Jeff Flake says allowing Americans to travel to Cuba is "a way to show strength."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Jeff Flake: Dealing with spring break would be "a real get-tough policy" for Cuba
  • Travel is "the best way to foster change and progress toward democracy"
  • Sen. Robert Menendez says the U.S. policy toward Cuba is no laughing matter
  • There is an "increasing brutal crackdown on peaceful democracy advocates on the island," he says

(CNN) -- Could wild beach parties fueled by spring break tourism from the United States be in Cuba's future?

They might be if Sen. Jeff Flake has anything to say about it.

The Arizona Republican weighed in on the issue during Sen. John Kerry's secretary of state confirmation hearing on Thursday.

"I've often felt that if we want a real get-tough policy with the Castro brothers," Flake said, "we should force them to deal with spring break once or twice."

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Flake said there was a serious message behind his quip.

"The best way to foster change and progress toward democracy is to allow travel, free travel of Americans, to let them go as they wish," he said.

Later in Thursday's hearing, another lawmaker said U.S. policy toward Cuba is no laughing matter.

"To suggest that spring break is a form of torture to the Castro regime, unfortunately, they are experts of torture as evidenced by the increasing brutal crackdown on peaceful democracy advocates on the island," said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the Cuban government's handling of dissidents. But Cuban officials told the United Nations last year that the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power also put an end to authorities' use of torture.

After Castro took power in 1959, Cuba went from being a favorite getaway for Americans to a forbidden destination.

Diplomatic relations and direct travel between the United States and Cuba were cut off. U.S. citizens spending money on the island faced hefty fines for "trading with the enemy."

While a decades-long trade embargo remains in place, travel is one part of the U.S. policy toward Cuba that has changed in recent years.

The Obama administration has reinstituted legal travel to Cuba as a way to reach out to the Cuban people. Under the U.S. Treasury's "people to people" travel guidelines, tour operators have to plan nearly every moment of the trip, and "people-to-people" travel, at least in theory, excludes relaxing by the pool with umbrella-topped beverages.

The relaxed travel restrictions are a good step, said Flake, who has long opposed the U.S. trade embargo and limits on travel to Cuba. But he encouraged Kerry to push for more travel opportunities for Americans in the island nation.

"I don't think that that's a weakness or any capitulation at all," he said. "I think it's a way to show strength."

CNN's Jill Dougherty and Patrick Oppmann contributed to this report.

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