CQ WEEKLY - COVER STORY
Nov. 9, 2009 - Page 2580
Exporting Democracy in a Suitcase
By Jonathan Broder, CQ Staff
In a quiet but determined campaign to change U.S. foreign policy, a bipartisan pair of House members is relentlessly pressing fellow lawmakers to support ending restrictions on travel to Cuba and permitting American citizens to visit the island freely for the first time in almost five decades.
Democrat Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona corner colleagues in their Capitol Hill offices, on planes, at private Washington dinner parties and on the sidelines of public events. Flake even uses his workout time at the House gym to garner support for their bill, dubbed the Free Travel to Cuba Act, which would incrementally remove elements of a sweeping economic embargo first put in place by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
The congressmen have stepped up their lobbying to seize upon the changing domestic political landscape - in particular a new president whose attitude toward Cuba is less doctrinaire than his predecessors' and a growing desire among younger Cuban-Americans to cast off the Cold War policy of isolation that has defined Washington's tortured relations with Havana for so many years.
"They have really done a full-throttle whip operation," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, who heads U.S.-Cuba Democracy, a political action committee in Hialeah, Fla., that raises money for candidates who want to preserve the embargo. "They are out there on a daily basis. You'd think there was no other important issues out there for them."
Such comments underscore rising concerns among pro-embargo activists and lawmakers as the free-travel measure gains momentum on both sides of the aisle. With the House Foreign Affairs Committee scheduled to hold hearings on the travel ban next week, 53 House Democrats last week rushed a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., affirming their support for retaining the full embargo against the government of Fidel and Raul Castro and warning against lifting or relaxing the sanctions.
Regardless, Delahunt and Flake say they are making headway with their argument that political change will come quicker to Cuba through the island's exposure to American visitors and their ideas. "The current policy has proven to be an abysmal failure," Delahunt said. "What's changed in 50 years? Nothing."
What has changed is the views of many lawmakers and government officials in Washington, and of generations of Cuban-Americans in Florida, New Jersey and elsewhere.
During the administration of George W. Bush, the House voted no fewer than five times to attach amendments to spending bills that would have relaxed limits on travel to Cuba, only to have the language dropped before final passage in the face of Bush's veto threats.
By contrast, President Obama used an executive order in April to remove all restrictions on travel to the island by Cuban-Americans and on their remittances to relatives there. And in a signal to the American business community, he has opened the way for U.S. telecommunications companies to pursue deals in Cuba and begun a dialogue with Havana on immigration issues. Moreover, while the president says he favors leveraging the embargo to push the Castro regime into granting Cubans additional political freedoms, he hasn't threatened to veto any legislation that would relax economic sanctions, including the Delahunt-Flake effort.
No less important to the domestic political equation is the shift in attitudes among Cuban-Americans. Several recent surveys show most Cuban-Americans now say all U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba should be lifted, and that point of view is even embraced by a majority of the community's older, more hard-line members. One survey, conducted in April by Miami-based Bendixen & Associates, the largest Hispanic polling firm, found that Cuban-Americans favor lifting the trade embargo altogether, in contrast with just a few years ago when a majority was opposed.
Economic conditions in the United States are also driving the anti-embargo campaign. Advocates note that the recession has heightened interest among American farmers and travel companies in doing business with Cuba, and they are sending that message to their representatives in Washington.
Against this backdrop, advocates for opening the doors to Cuba have renewed their push in both the House and Senate, and their congressional opponents are gearing up for a showdown, which could come early next year. Big campaign donations from a small group of die-hard Cuban-Americans indicate it will be a hard-fought battle. Expectations are that the fight will focus first on lifting the travel ban, and there are bills to do so in both chambers. Three other measures have been introduced in the House and Senate that would relax restrictions on trade with the island.
Legislation to remove the travel ban is regarded as having a good chance of passing the House. So far, 179 other lawmakers have signed onto the Delahunt-Flake bill, leaving its list of cosponsors within striking range of the 218-vote majority needed to guarantee House passage.
Congressional aides say a House victory would increase pressure for passage in the Senate, where the chief sponsors of a companion bill, Democrat Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Republican Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, are working to line up support. And in that event, it is highly unlikely Obama would veto the measure, these aides say.
Still, Senate passage remains a challenge. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American, is leading the opposition to the measure, and he has a critical ally in Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who controls which bills reach the Senate floor.
The Last Cold War Vestige
Just like the iconic 1950s American automobiles that still rumble through the crumbling streets of Havana, relations between Cuba and the United States have been stuck in a time warp since the early days of the Cold War. Indeed, the trade embargo is an icon itself - the last vestige of virulent anti-communism in U.S. foreign policy, still operating some two decades after the Cold War ended.
The distrust between Washington and Havana reaches back to 1960, a year after Fidel Castro took power, when he nationalized all American-owned businesses without compensation. Castro's move prompted Kennedy to sever diplomatic relations with the island nation in 1961 and impose a trade and travel embargo by executive fiat.
That same year, the United States backed Cuban exiles in an abortive attempt at Cuba's Bay of Pigs to seize back the island. Fearing another invasion, Castro allowed the Soviet Union to bring in nuclear missiles. That led to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when Washington and Moscow came their closest to nuclear war. In a last-minute deal, the Soviets agreed to withdraw their missiles from Cuba in exchange for the removal of U.S. nuclear missiles based on the Soviet border in Turkey.
Since then, several U.S. presidents have tightened sanctions on Cuba, and Jimmy Carter used his powers to relax the embargo. In 1996, however, following Cuba's downing of two aircraft flown by U.S.-based Cuban exiles, an outraged GOP-led Congress enshrined the trade embargo in law, making it permanent and requiring enactment of a new law to change it in any substantial way.
Congress has reversed this policy only once, and in the most limited of ways. In 2000, after Hurricane Michelle devastated Cuba and Havana requested help to cope with the storm's aftermath, Congress cleared legislation that permitted the sale of food and medicine to Cuba but barred public or private U.S. financing of Cuba's purchases. The measure also cemented into law the executive order that restricted travel to Cuba.
Later in 2005, Bush tightened the rules for such sales, requiring Cuba to pay for U.S. food shipments before they had even left port. Cuba also wasn't permitted to send its payments directly to U.S. banks, requiring instead transfers through third countries.
While the Delahunt and Dorgan bills would only lift the travel ban, measures introduced in the House by Kansas Republican Jerry Moran and New York Democrat Charles B. Rangel and in the Senate by Montana Democrat Max Baucus and Indiana Republican Richard G. Lugar would go further, relaxing the regulations for trade payments that Bush ordered.
Anti-embargo lawmakers and advocates argue that the travel ban has failed to bring about any of the democratic changes in Cuba that congressional hard-liners demanded when they voted to make it law in 2000. If anything, they note, the ban has provided Raul Castro, who took over power from his ailing older brother last year, with an excuse to blame the United States for the island's economic woes.
Ever since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its economic subsidies to Havana, Cuba's economy has been struggling. It has the third-largest nickel reserves in the world, bringing in $2.7 billion in export earnings in 2007. But world nickel prices have dropped more than 40 percent amid the global economic downturn, severely curtailing the island's biggest export. Hurricanes have seriously damaged the island's sugar production, and Cuba must depend on cheap oil from its ally, Venezuela.
Tourism is now the country's biggest source of hard currency, bringing in almost $3 billion annually. Foreign investments, primarily from Spain, have added hundreds of millions of dollars, and remittances from Cubans living in the United States have yielded more than $1 billion annually. That figure is expected to increase with Obama's order lifting limits on such payments.
The embargo and travel ban have also isolated the United States diplomatically from the rest of the world. It's the only country that still imposes an economic boycott on Cuba, which is only 90 miles from U.S. shores.
"We scream that we want Cuba to change, but at the same time, we cut off contact," said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the conservative Lexington Institute. "That doesn't work in foreign policy."
As if to underscore that conclusion, the U.N. General Assembly voted last month for the 18th straight year to condemn the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. The vote was 187-3, with only Israel and Palau, a Pacific island nation of just 21,000 people, supporting the United States. Yet even Israel has strong economic ties with Cuba.
Moreover, travel advocates say, the large number of Americans - not only tourists but scholars, professionals, church groups and sports teams - who would go to Cuba if the ban were lifted would produce an explosion of human contact that would overwhelm the ability of Cuban authorities to control it and inevitably liberalize Cuban society.
"Let the Castro brothers deal with spring break once or twice, and we'll see how much control they still have," Flake said.
Meanwhile, Flake and other lawmakers who want to remove travel restrictions stress that the political significance of the shift in attitudes among Cuban-Americans cannot be overestimated. The community's support today for lifting the restrictions contrasts sharply with the days when older, more conservative Cuban exiles, known as historicos, dominated the community and led demonstrations that called for even tougher policies toward Cuba.
"They used to have parades, and they would be shaking their fists and their voices would be trembling on street corners," recalled Frank J. Guarini Jr., a seven-term House Democrat from New Jersey who retired in 1992. He was succeeded by Menendez, who later was appointed to the Senate in 2006. "But today, the younger generation is not as emotionally involved with the issue as their parents and grandparents were."
Indeed, Marco Rubio, the 38-year-old Cuban-American running for the 2010 Republican nomination for an open Senate seat in Florida, isn't campaigning on the embargo at all. A campaign spokesman said Rubio, who was born in Miami, supports the embargo. But in Rubio's campaign appearances, "it just hasn't come up," the spokesman said.
Lugar, who wrote Obama earlier this year urging greater engagement with Havana, agrees that it is time for an overall change in U.S.-Cuba policy. "Our whole protocol of sanctions has not worked to bring down the Cuban government or modify the power of Cuba in any substantial way," he said.
Driving such calls for change, especially among Republicans, is the potential for increased trade. With all of the obstacles that have been put in the way, U.S. food and pharmaceutical sales to Cuba earned a paltry $712 million in 2008. But with a relaxation of travel and trade restrictions, that figure is bound to grow, Lugar says. "This is a very good time for public diplomacy," he said. "And it can occur very profitably for Americans though trade in food and medicine."
Another issue that could break in favor of free-travel advocates is the questionable legality of Obama's decision to change policy and permit Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba while denying that right to others. "Obama has created a situation where there is one class of Americans that has no restrictions whatsoever, while the rest of us are still under Cold War restrictions," the Lexington Institute's Peters said. "That's a little hard to sustain."
Growing Concern on Right
Advocates for maintaining a tight embargo minimize the support that Delahunt and Flake have gathered for their bill. For example, Claver-Carone argues that the avowed supporters of the Delahunt measure are essentially the same lawmakers who supported a 2007 amendment to a five-year reauthorization of farm programs that would have relaxed Bush's restrictions on Cuban payments for U.S. food shipments. That amendment was rejected, 182-245. "All the cosponsors of the Delahunt bill are within that 182," Claver-Carone said. "So there are no new faces."
But a comparison of the names of the supporters of both measures suggests the pro-embargo crowd may be overly optimistic. While the numbers are roughly the same, Claver-Carone's claim doesn't acknowledge a number of freshman lawmakers who have signed on as cosponsors. Moreover, Flake says he has won the support of an unspecified number of lawmakers who had opposed earlier legislative bids to remove the Cuba travel restrictions. Because they don't want to advertise their change of heart, Flake said, they are not signing on as cosponsors and will quietly vote for it when it reaches the floor.
Quarterbacking opposition to lifting the travel ban is Menendez, who strongly believes that it remains an effective tool that denies badly needed dollars to the Castro regime.
"Sitting on a beach smoking a Cuban cigar or sipping a Cuba Libre doesn't promote democracy and human rights," the senator said. "I would say to those who say travel is the silver bullet to change the Castro regime, then why is it that the millions of visitors from all over Europe, Canada, Mexico and Latin America have not created one iota of democratic change or a greater respect for human rights inside of Cuba?"
In addition to his passion for the fight, Menendez also wields power with Obama as an important Democratic vote on such issues as a health care overhaul and with his colleagues in his role as one of the chief campaign strategist and fundraisers in the run-up to the 2010 midterm election as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Menendez has been able to attract generous donations from hard-liners in the Cuban-American community, a group that historically has directed most of its money to Republicans. According to a report coming out this month by Public Campaign, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group, a Cuban-American financial network that opposes any weakening of trade and travel restriction on Cuba donated $145,700 to Menendez's campaign organization during the first eight months of this year - more than five times the amount raised from the pro-embargo network in 2006.
"That's a dramatic shift," said David Donnelly, Public Campaign's national campaign director. He said the shift in contributions to Democrats was evidence the group is worried it could lose this fight in the Senate.
And Dorgan has little doubt that if his bill, which now has 33 cosponsors, comes up for a vote, it will pass comfortably. "There is a critical mass now that understands the need to lift travel restrictions and move forward with a different strategy," he said. "I don't think this is going to be a razor-thin margin. Of course, our problem is getting it up on the floor."
That might actually be a big problem. Menendez has a strategic supporter in Reid, who is the gatekeeper for all legislation that reaches the floor. "Sen. Reid remains concerned about political freedoms and human rights in Cuba and continues to support the embargo," said Jim Manley, his chief spokesman. Manley declined to speculate whether Reid would bring up the free-travel bill. "He's always interested in hearing views of senators on this topic," he offered.
Dorgan and Enzi also may face trouble earlier in the legislative process. Their bill awaits action by the Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, hasn't made up his mind yet about how he will vote on it. Until then, said Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones, it is unclear when the committee will consider the bill.
Obama Hangs Back
Some advocates for lifting the travel restrictions fear that a lack of active support from the Obama administration may be hindering their effort.
"It's very disappointing," said Theodore Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, which issued a report in April that recommended a U.S. policy of engagement toward Cuba that de-emphasizes the importance of public reciprocal gestures by Havana. Obama's insistence that the Castro regime publicly make concessions to the United States in return for Obama's lifting of travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans "gives Havana too much control in deciding the pace of change," Piccone said.
Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert at American University, warns the administration should not expect responses from Havana that would encourage Obama to put his weight behind the free-travel legislation.
"The Cuban government hasn't figured out how to deal with any influx of U.S. investment and tourists," said Brenner, who is allowed to visit Cuba as an academic. "They need investment and tourism. But they're desperately afraid that it will overwhelm them."
Already, he says, ordinary Cubans working as taxi drivers for foreign tourists earn more in a month than what a Cuban doctor earns. "So, young people are choosing to become taxi drivers instead of going to medical school and serving the greater good," Brenner said. "A million more American tourists will only further undermine the whole socialist idea of the government providing people with what they need."
Flake suggests that Cuba might resolve such problems by simply abandoning its communist system and adopting the free-market, democratic model. Meanwhile, he says, Americans should be free to travel wherever they want. "If someone is going to limit my travel, it should be a communist government, not the U.S. government," he said.
Lately, Flake has been appealing for congressional support of the free-travel bill by portraying it as a legislative stroke that knocks the ball into Havana's court. He recalls a visit to Cuba several years ago, when he says he half-seriously taunted Cuban officials by telling them of his plans to lift the travel ban. "And if you don't shape up, we'll lift the full embargo," he said he told them.
Congressional aides who focus on the Cuba question predict the House and Senate will pass some kind of legislation to relax the embargo. These aides also say it would be difficult for Obama to veto such a bill, given his repeated calls for greater engagement with the world. Others, including Piccone, say it appears that Obama may have carved out Cuba as an exception to that policy, leaving them baffled. "Engagement is what he campaigned on," he said. "And Cuba is the exception? Why?"
Piccone answers his own question, suggesting it probably has something to do with the politics of Obama's presumed campaign for a second term. He notes that Obama carried Florida last year without the support of the state's powerful Cuban-American community, but his political advisers are fearful he may not be able to repeat that trick in 2012. As a result, he says, they are advising him to keep his distance for now from the Cuba legislation.
Lugar agrees with this analysis. "Many people in his party are saying, 'Fair enough, Mr. President. Maybe put a toe in the water and see what a cautious approach leads to, what sort of reaction will there be from Cuban-Americans, the older types,'" he said. "So he's decided not to plunge into this wholesale, but rather very cautiously."
But Lugar has his own advice for the president. The bills that would lift travel and trade restrictions present the president "a good opportunity to get over a particular patch of history without knowing precisely what the Cuban reaction is going to be," he said. "But from our standpoint, we can be advocates for freer trade, for more human contact. This seems to me to be a good path for the president to take."
FOR FURTHER READING:
The Delahunt-Flake bill is HR 874; the Dorgan-Enzi bill is S 428; the Moran bill is HR 1737; the Baucus-Lugar bill is S 1089; the Rangel bill is HR 1531; Cuba trade, CQ Weekly, p. 1641; U.S. foreign policy, p. 898; trademark disputes with Cuba, p. 520; U.S.-Cuba relations, p. 457; agricultural exports allowed (PL 106-387), 2000 Almanac, p. 2-13; Cuba trade embargo becomes law (PL 104-114), 1996 Almanac, p. 9-6.
Source: CQ Weekly
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