Thursday’s unexpectedly lop-sided vote by the Republican-led U.S. Senate to end a 40-year ban on U.S. citizens travelling to Cuba marks another embarrassing defeat for President George W. Bush.
Less than two weeks ago the president announced new measures to make it more difficult for people who travel to the Caribbean island illegally.
The 59-36 vote to lift the ban also signals Bush’s weakening hold on fellow Republicans in Congress, who are trying to assert greater independence from the administration as they have watched the president’s approval ratings plummet from around 80 percent last spring to less than 50 percent one year before the 2004 elections.
Earlier in the week, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted for a resolution to convert one-half of the 20 billion dollars Bush has asked for to finance reconstruction in Iraq to a loan rather than a grant.
Although the vote was non-binding, top administration policy-makers were furious about Republican defections, particularly on the eve of this week’s Iraq donors’ conference, where the administration is lobbying for billions of dollars in pledges and arguing that Iraq’s major creditors should cancel their debts.
"This would have been inconceivable six months ago," said one Congressional aide after the Senate vote on Cuba. "But it’s clear that more Republicans are willing to vote against the president."
The vote, which prompted an immediate veto threat from the White House, followed approval of an almost identical provision by the House on Sep. 9. In spite of furious lobbying by the Republican leadership, 53 Republicans voted with a strong majority of Democrats to end travel restrictions.
Because both houses approved the same wording, which is now attached to the 2004 Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill, it will be much more difficult for the Republican congressional leadership to delete or amend the provision in the House-Senate "conference committee," which must reconcile the two pieces of legislation before the final bill can be sent to the president.
When, in the last several years, the House has approved a provision ending the travel ban that the Senate had not included it in its version, the Republican leadership was able to strip it from the underlying bill in the committee so as not to embarrass Bush, whose consistently hard line toward Havana is aimed primarily at ensuring the Republican loyalties of Cuban-American voters in the key battleground state of Florida.
Thursday’s vote was the first time that the Senate, which had previously approved exempting food and medicine from Washington’s 42-year trade embargo against Cuba, voted to lift the ban on travel there.
In 1999 the Senate rejected ending the ban by a vote of 43 to 55. As noted by the New York Times on Friday, 13 senators who voted to retain the ban four years ago switched sides Thursday. A total of 19 Republican senators voted against Bush’s position.
The large margin of victory caught even some supporters by surprise, particularly because several Republican senators who voted to back the president, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, indicated they thought the ban should be lifted, but that this is not the time to do so, particularly given President Fidel Castro’s unexpectedly harsh crackdown against dozens of dissidents this year.
In addition, four Democratic senators who favour lifting the ban were not present for the vote. As a result, according to some analysts, the number of senators who oppose the ban came close to the 66 or two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto.
Nonetheless, White House officials, confident that a veto would be sustained particularly in the House told reporters a veto was likely if the provision survives the conference committee.
Citing the recent crackdown, which included lengthy prison terms for some of Cuba’s most distinguished dissidents, the administration has argued that Castro has become ever more authoritarian and that providing new sources of income through tourism would serve only to sustain the government there.
"Providing a material benefit to a regime which only six months ago undertook the most significant act of political repression in the Americas in a decade strikes us deeply unwise," a State Department spokesman said last month.
At the same time, the department announced new, albeit largely symbolic, economic sanctions against Cuba for allegedly failing to curb "human trafficking" across international borders.
Two weeks ago, Bush announced several steps he said were meant to speed the coming of "a new, free, democratic Cuba," including increasing the number of Cuban immigrants allowed into the United States, creating a commission to plan "Cuba’s transition from Stalinist rule to a free and open society," and tightening restrictions on travel there by U.S. citizens.
The measures were seen as an effort to appease the anger of hard-line anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, who were infuriated when Washington ordered the Coast Guard to return a dozen Cuban refugees it had intercepted at sea.
Under current U.S. law, travel to Cuba is allowed for family reunions, study and research and other limited purposes, but "those exceptions are too often used as a cover for illegal business travel and tourism, or to skirt the restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba," Bush charged in a brief White House rose garden appearance.
"Illegal tourism perpetuates the misery of the Cuban people," he added.
During the past year, the Treasury Department has stepped up inspections, investigations and fines of people who have travelled to Cuba illegally.
But supporters of lifting the ban, which, under the provision approved by the House and Senate, would be done by denying the Treasury Department funds to enforce it, have argued that denying citizens the right to travel to Cuba simply perpetuates a policy that has never worked.
"Unilateral sanctions stop not just the flow of goods, but the flow of ideas," said Senator Michael Enzi, a Republican who co-sponsored the provision.
"The best approach for dealing with communist countries is engagement," said Brian Dorgan, a Democrat who also backed the measure.
"Coming just days after the president’s speech endorsing an enforcement of the travel ban to Cuba, this is a clear vote of no confidence," noted Anya Landau of the Centre for International Policy (CIP), a think tank that has lobbied for lifting the ban.
According to the authoritative ‘Congressional Quarterly’, the latest vote suggested that restive Republicans were increasingly prepared to resist Bush’s directions in a series of legislative tests before Congress recesses next month.
In addition to the House’s embarrassing rebuff to the aid programme for Iraq earlier this week, Republican grumbling about the failure of top Pentagon officials to respond to congressional inquiries about Iraq grew significantly louder and angrier.
Washington Office on Latin America
Center for International Policy
(Inter Press Service)