Diverse interests and ordinary Americans, including exiles, are increasingly pushing for normalized relations.
By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 18, 2007
MIAMI — Opposition to restrictive U.S. policies on Cuba has been mounting for more than a decade, but it may have reached critical mass with recent power shifts in Havana and Washington.
With Democrats in control of Congress and 80-year-old Fidel Castro having transferred power to his brother Raul while he recovers from a grave illness, a course change may be ahead.
Polls suggest most Americans want better relations with the island. Farm and energy interests would like to trade and invest in Cuba. A raft of legislation to change trade and travel restrictions has been introduced in Congress this session. Even many who have fled Cuba say it's time to end the standoff.
"The majority of the Cuban community in Miami supports the betterment of relations with Cuba, especially with regard to ending travel restrictions," said Andres Gomez, a Miami free-speech activist. "There is a will to be able to help relatives, even if we oppose certain aspects of life on the island."
The committee aims to mobilize the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have arrived since 1980 and who reject the isolation strategy adopted by exiles who fled after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Antonio Zamora, a Bay of Pigs veteran who has parted ways with anti-Castro militants, has formed a group that is pursuing normalized relations. "That we are not engaging with Cuba is very damaging to our future and to the possible influence we can have in Cuba," Zamora said.
Raul Castro has said Cuba would be open to talks on improving relations, but the White House has spurned the offers.
"It's an ongoing missed opportunity," says Glenn Baker, Cuba policy director at the World Security Institute think tank in Washington. "If they're available for dialogue, getting together and talking, even if they talk past each other for some of that time, I still think it's a useful exercise."
President Bush would probably veto any measure to engage with Cuba, but lawmakers and lobbyists believe there is sufficient support to override a veto or attach policy changes to legislation Bush must sign.
"Congress is energized. I think the various constituent groups are energized," said Kirby Jones, a consultant on trade and business with Cuba. Farmers want to sell more produce, oil companies want to explore Cuba's gulf deposits, and the travel industry anticipates a million U.S. visitors to Cuba the first year it is legal.
"What has changed is that we are in the majority — and by 'we,' it's important to underscore that it's not Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives, but 'we' meaning those who would like to see a change in policy," Jones said, noting that much of the legislation proposed since Congress convened last month enjoyed bipartisan support and could sidestep a veto.
The Cuba Reconciliation Act sponsored by Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) proposes to lift the 45-year-old trade embargo. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) has submitted a bill to rescind restrictions on Cuban Americans' visits to family on the island, now limited to once every three years.
Also on the table are moves to allow any U.S. citizen to travel to Cuba, to remove tight limits on money and goods Cuban Americans can send to their families, and to ease the payment process for agricultural sales to Cuba.
The barrier most likely to fall first, say Cuba-watchers, is the limit on visits to parents, siblings and children. "It's a policy that's reduced American influence on the island to almost nothing as dramatic changes are occurring," Delahunt said.
"The crazies in Miami overplayed their hand when they put in that once-every-three-years restriction. Nobody supports that," said Albert Fox, a Tampa businessman who heads the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy.
Though few see even the slightest flinch in the administration's posture, Fox says Cuba policy has "dropped down a few notches" in importance to a White House beset with bigger foreign policy headaches. He predicts the U.S. Treasury Department, which licenses travel to Cuba, will begin approving more applications.
Recent actions, though, confirm a status quo. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control denied permission for a U.S. cycling team to compete in Cuba this month. It refused to license a humanitarian and educational mission planned for June. The State Department recently nixed visas for Cuban academics to take part in a University of Connecticut symposium on the post-Soviet era.
The Miami Herald editorial page, long a voice for militant anti-Castro exiles, published an editorial that stated: "The U.S. government is blowing its best chance to encourage a peaceful transition in Cuba by holding fast to counterproductive restrictions on travel to the island."
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is working to get the travel ban lifted. He says that more contact between Cubans and Americans will erode misconceptions about U.S. life that the communist regime has fostered.
U.S. citizens apparently want change too. In a recent Associated Press-Ipsos survey, 62% wanted diplomatic relations restored with Cuba; 40% said they would like to vacation there. A December Gallup poll found similar sentiments.
Opportunities to get into Cuba's booming tourism and natural resource markets are also driving the push for change. A bill exempting U.S. oil exploration in Cuba from the embargo was submitted last year by Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), and is expected to be brought before the new Congress. The measure has bipartisan support and the backing of the oil lobby.
A bill submitted by Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) aims to ease the payment regimen for agricultural sales to Cuba, which have been legal since 2000, but have been stifled by bureaucracy. USA Rice Federation spokesman David Coia says there is potential for U.S. rice producers to triple last year's $40 million in sales to Cuba if trade and travel barriers are lifted.
Daniel P. Erikson, Caribbean analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, says the exiles and the White House are digging in because the scenario they planned for hasn't happened. "The administration has spent all its time planning for the collapse of communism. There's no Plan B," he said.
The five Cuban American members of Congress steering U.S. policy on Cuba do not see a need to shift tactics. "The Castro brothers have done nothing to merit better treatment by the generous spirit of the American people," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
The State Department's Cuba transition coordinator, Caleb McCarry, adds: "This is the time to maintain our policy and to continue to press for genuine changes in Cuba."