Foes of Cuba Embargo See Hope in New Congress

A bipartisan coalition of US lawmakers who favor an easing of the nearly 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba say the new Democrat-led Congress offers hope for progress this year.

The coalition, which embraces Democratic liberals from the Northeast and the West Coast and conservatives from agricultural states in the Midwest and Mississippi Valley, say they will probably pursue an incremental strategy designed to roll back steps taken over the past six years by President George W. Bush to tighten the embargo.

In particular, the lawmakers, who are backed by a coalition of major US companies called USA*Engage, think they can reduce restrictions on food exports to Cuba and on travel to the island, particularly by Cuban-Americans with family members there.

“Things are better; we can make some real progress,” said Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, one member of a delegation of 10 lawmakers who traveled to Cuba in mid-December. His observation was seconded by Jake Colvin, USA*Engage’s director, who accompanied the delegation on the trip.

The new legislative push comes amid continued speculation and debate here about Cuba’s apparent transition since last summer from the nearly 50-year reign of its ailing president, Fidel Castro, to the post-Castro era. Spanish newspaper El País reported Tuesday that Castro, who has not appeared in public since last July, faces a “very grave prognosis” due to an infection of his large intestine that has persisted despite three operations.

So far, the transition, which has been overseen by Castro’s brother, Raúl, has gone far more smoothly than many analysts here had expected, deeply disappointing both the Bush administration and the leaders of the anti-Castro Cuban-American community centered in South Florida, one of whose Congressional representatives, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, recently called for Castro’s assassination.

If the Republicans had retained their majority in the House of Representatives after the November mid-term elections, Ros-Lehtinen would likely have been chosen as the chairperson of the House International Relations Committee.

Still, even with the Republicans in the minority in Congress, there will be limits to how far the pro-engagement coalition can move the direction of US policy over the remainder of the Bush administration.

While a majority of both the House and the Senate have voted several times over the past six years to ease travel restrictions to Cuba, they have not until now been able to muster a two-thirds vote in each chamber that would permit them to overcome a presidential veto. As a result, Bush has only had to threaten a veto, and the legislation was dropped.

That, however, may change now, according to Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. While Bush will still likely to be able to marshal enough Republicans to sustain a veto, the balance of power has shifted enough so that he may be forced to negotiate compromises that he has previously ruled out of hand.

“Despite all the changes in Congress, it won’t be able to end the embargo overall or compel the Bush administration to do so,” he told IPS. “But I’m hopeful that Congress will vote to end the ban on travel overall and then, in the face of a likely presidential veto threat, push hard for real changes in US policy. The fact is, the Democrats have made enough gains to make a veto politically far more costly.”

Changes that may well be within reach, according to Thale, include permitting Cuban-Americans with family on the island to travel there more frequently than the limit of only once every three years that was imposed by Bush in 2004. In addition, the administration may agree to expand educational and other “people-to-people” exchanges that were significantly broadened by President Bill Clinton only to be severely cut back under Bush.

Since Clinton’s last year in office, the number of non-Cuban-American US citizens who traveled to Cuba legally each year fell from more than 100,000 to only about 3,000, Thale said.

While travel to Cuba was authorized by the executive branch, it was Congress that legalized agricultural exports to Cuba in 2000, albeit on the condition that all purchases be made in cash.

Nonetheless, exports grew from nothing to nearly 750 million dollars between 2002 and 2004 before Bush imposed new regulations that banned the participation of US banks in such transactions and made it more difficult for foreign banks to take part.

As a result, sales have fallen, although this year the Cuban government has allocated some $543 million to buy and transport US food products, according to Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican who was also a member of last month’s delegation.

“We could do a billion dollars more a year (in sales to Cuba),” she said Tuesday, adding that China was trying to gain a greater share of Cuba’s market by offering export credits that US companies cannot.

Emerson is one of a number of Republican lawmakers who have called for Washington to engage, rather than to continue to isolate, Havana, particularly during this transition period.

Even former political prisoners with whom the delegation met in Cuba “say the policy isn’t working,” she said at a press briefing Tuesday co-sponsored by USA*Engage and the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA). “People don’t feel as oppressed as some people here would want you to believe,” she added.

Tuesday’s briefing is the first of several by members of the delegation that went to Cuba to highlight both their findings and the urgency of engaging Havana. Emerson and California Rep. Jane Harman are scheduled to address the influential Council on Foreign Relations next week, while the co-leaders of the delegation, Democratic William Delahunt and Republican Jeff Flake, will appear at a briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue.

Both McGovern and Emerson stressed that they see little impetus for change from within the Bush administration despite its predictions of unrest and a surge in emigration following the departure of Fidel from power, as well as pressure from the Pentagon, in particular, to initiate formal military-to-military contacts between the two countries.

That leaves it to Congress to initiate change, according to the two lawmakers, who also argued that Washington’s engagement is more likely to spur reform in Cuba than its current policy. “If we change our policy,” according to McGovern, “things will naturally begin to change on the ground.”

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.