Jan 25th 2007 MIAMI From The Economist print edition
Pressure is growing for a re-think of policy towards the island
THE fading health of Fidel Castro, coupled with the advent of the new Democratic Congress, means that America is under growing pressure to change its tough stance towards Cuba. Before Christmas, a ten-member bipartisan congressional delegation travelled to that dangerous island for a series of meetings with senior Cuban government officials. “It's a time for change,” says Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who led the delegation. “There's a new dynamic now.”
Both sides feel it. Since taking over from his invalid brother in late July, Raúl Castro has twice offered to open normalisation talks with America. Each time he has been tersely rejected. The Bush administration says it is not interested so long as either Castro brother is in power. Critics say the administration is ignoring political developments in Cuba, where Raúl is showing signs of a less doctrinaire style of rule. But promoting change in either capital is no easy task. For the past six years the Bush administration has fought off efforts in Congress to soften the embargo, using the Republican majorities there to defeat repeated attempts to alter its terms.
That has now changed. The relevant committees in the 110th Congress are now headed by longstanding critics of the embargo. These include Charles Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Max Baucus, who heads the Senate Finance Committee. In the Senate Joe Biden of Delaware, a liberal and non-ideologue, has taken over the Foreign Relations Committee.
William Delahunt, the Democrat who now heads the oversight panel of the International Relations Committee in the House, has already announced that he will hold hearings shortly into Cuban aid programmes. Other hearings could be held on scandal-plagued Radio and TV Martí, the Miami-based government broadcasting outlets directed at Cuba. A government report has already exposed flaws in aid to Cuba's tiny dissident movement, as well as in funding for anti-Castro projects in the United States.
Critics say all these programmes have done a good job of fuelling the anti-Castro industry in Miami, while having little impact in Cuba. That, of course, has long been the dirty secret of America's Cuba policy. “The administration is not interested in Cuba, it is interested in Calle Ocho,” says Philip Peters, vice-president of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, referring to the main avenue that cuts through Miami's Little Havana district. Miami's Cuban-American electorate and campaign contributions have long been seen as politically vital, less because of their actual size than because of Florida's perennial importance as a big presidential swing state.
In 2004, though, the Bush administration overreached itself. A presidential “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba” proposed increasing aid to the dissidents while imposing tight limits on cash remittances to relatives on the island. Cuban-Americans were also restricted to one trip to Cuba every three years, and to visiting “close” relatives only—not including aunts, uncles and cousins.
But the travel and money limits, while popular with some hardliners, are disliked by many Cuban-Americans, especially those who have arrived in the past two decades and still have ties to family on the island. Many now advocate personal contacts as a useful vehicle for change.
Last month, a group of Cuban exile organisations in Miami echoed the call for easing restrictions on travel and remittances. Consenso Cubano issued a report saying that the policy violated “fundamental rights of Cubans”. It was endorsed by the influential, and extremely conservative, Cuban-American National Foundation.
Four prominent dissidents in Cuba also signed a statement in late November asking America to lift its travel restrictions. American laws “in no way help” their struggle, they said. Will George Bush listen? It's not what he's best known for.
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