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U.S. visa for daughter of Raul Castro decried

Cuban first daughter Mariela Castro has been granted a U.S. visa to attend events in San Francisco and New York, sparking a firestorm of criticism from Cuban-American politicians who called her an enemy of democracy and a shill for the Communist government her family has led for decades.

The trip, which kicks off next week when Castro is due to head a panel on sexual diversity at a conference organized by the Latin American Studies Association, is among several to America by prominent Cubans, some with close links to President Raul Castro's government.

Cuban academics, scientists and economists now frequently attend seminars in the United States, and Cuban artists and entertainers are also finding it easier to visit the United States due to an easing of travel restrictions by President Obama's administration.

Mariela Castro, 50, is a noted advocate of gay rights and head of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education. She has pushed for the island to legalize gay marriage for years, so far without success. She recently praised Obama's stance in support of same-sex marriage and said her father also favors such a measure, though he has not said so publicly.

It will not be her first visit to the United States. She was granted a visa to attend an event in Los Angeles in 2002, during Republican President George W. Bush's administration, and also made stops in Virginia and Washington.

Prominent Americans have also been frequent visitors to Cuba. Former President Jimmy Carter visited in March 2011, and a bipartisan delegation led by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, was here in February, meeting with Raul Castro as well as an imprisoned American subcontractor.

According to the website of the New York Public Library, Mariela Castro will take part in a May 29 talk with Rea Carey, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, about international gay rights, as well as sexual identity and orientation in Cuba.

Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., slammed the visa decision Wednesday, calling Mariela Castro "a vociferous advocate of the regime and opponent of democracy."

Thursday, four other Cuban-American lawmakers added their voices to the outcry, noting that State Department guidelines prohibit visas to officers of the Communist Party or government of Cuba.

"The administration's appalling decision to allow regime agents into the U.S. directly contradicts congressional intent and long-standing U.S. foreign policy," wrote Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and David Rivera, all of Florida, along with Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Other Americans said the hard-liners were stirring up controversy over something that has happened many times before. "It's a very positive thing they give her the visa," said Wayne Smith, America's former top diplomat in Cuba.