Thursday, April 12, 2007
Freedom to travel to Cuba can be achieved this year. A new political context in both Washington and Havana offer unprecedented opportunity for real progress.
Representatives Charles Rangel along with Representative Jeff Flake, Representative Bill Delahunt and the leadership of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group have submitted HR 654 that restores to Americans one of our most fundamental liberties. (To see text, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/ and type in “HR 654”.)
House members already sympathetic need to become cosponsors of 654 to create momentum and attract the attention of the media. Those who are undecided or even skeptical must come to recognize that the issue matters to their own constituents.
It is now up to each of us whether an historic opportunity to restore our rights and open the door to reasonable bilateral relations is realized or missed.
What is covered by HR 654?
“the President shall not regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents, or any of the transactions incident to such travel“
That means no licensing by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, no requirement to use only travel agents who are registered Travel Service Providers, and no other Administration obstacles to travel at any time. Beneficiaries will include Cuban Americans, universities, high schools, people-to- people groups, religious and humanitarian organizations, farmers, businesses exploring post- embargo opportunities, Councils on World Affairs, athletic teams, performers, museums, tourists, etc.
The legislation will allow use of credit cards, but does not lift the embargo on trade and investment, in fact, “does not authorize the importation into the United States of any goods for personal consumption acquired in Cuba.” (No rum, no cigars, but artistic products are OK. Handicrafts?)
Two-thirds of Americans favor normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba according to a December Gallup poll.
Does that mean you can plan a trip to Cuba for this summer or next winter? At least you could start thinking about it. But we cannot be overconfident.
Democratic control of the House and Senate allows the procedural possibility of stand alone legislation or an amendment that truly ends all travel restrictions, but the bill must still get through committee and receive bipartisan majority support of the Congress. Always looming will be the threat of a Presidential veto, unless the bill receives a two-thirds vote. However, a White House preoccupied by an unpopular war in Iraq plus legislative creativity may make such a confrontation less likely.
Impact on Cuba and the US
A peaceful and orderly leadership transition is well underway in Cuba according to virtually all experts and journalists. Articles in mainstream publications report a pragmatic direction in economic reform and greater openness to public debate about policy. (Illustrative accounts may be found at http://uscubanormalization.blogspot.com/ )
Hard liners in the US who had expected that Fidel Castro’s absence from power would lead to chaos and a reason for US military intervention are increasingly marginalized, except by the media. Still at play are efforts by more moderate opponents to make changes in travel and other US policy contingent on changes in Cuba.
I think that would be a mistake. An end to travel restrictions is first and foremost in our interest as an expression of American values. Secondly, the ability of Congress to reform this policy will be seen in Cuba as evidence that the US is no longer dominated by rigid advocates of regime change.
Finally, we can only speculate how the free access to Cuba of tens and then hundreds of thousands of Americans will affect the people of both countries in economic, cultural, and political terms. Fundamentally, it is a question of creating space in which natural mutually respectful change can take place.
In December the US finally completed the process of normalization of relations with Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia when the Congress with the support of President Bush adopted Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Hanoi. The American war in Indochina ended 31 years before that. Today the US is Viet Nam's primary export market and foreign investor--and second only to China as a source of tourists.
With allowances for historical and cultural differences, Viet Nam's political and legal system is similar to Cuba's. Its economic system is quite different, but the market economy only flourished after President Clinton ended a unilateral US embargo and established diplomatic relations.
Having spent much of the past three decades working to normalize US relations with Indochina, my more recent similar work about Cuba is based on confidence that communication leads to understanding which leads to change which leads to communication and the whole process renews itself at higher and higher levels.
Let's get rid of travel restrictions, the primary obstacle to communication, in 2007 before the pursuit of Florida's electoral votes once again obscures national interest and rational policy making.
The Associated Press reported on February 23d that, "two men were arrested and charged with using fake religious organizations to get thousands of people permission to travel to Cuba". The Florida case alleges that some 6500 persons made illegal trips. Most are presumed to have been Cuban American.
U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta, is quoted in the Miami Herald as confirming the political goal of the prosecution: ''Vigorous enforcement of economic sanctions against the Cuban regime is important to help hasten a transition to democracy on the island.''
According to the AP, “Acosta wouldn't say if his office had specific plans to bring charges against the travel agencies or the thousands of people who traveled using the licenses. ‘We start here, but that doesn't mean we end here,’ Acosta said.”
The arrests are the first criminal prosecution of travel violations by the Cuban Sanctions Enforcement Task Force. It was formed in October, leading to suspicion that this was but another Bush Administration pre-election goodie for its Miami supporters. One reason for creation of the Task Force may be that the civil sanctions process of the Office of Foreign Assets Control has become little more than a threat to induce out of court settlements. Administrative Law hearings in Washington have apparently ground to a halt, due to the case load and readiness of victims to defend their rights.
Without speaking to the guilt or motives of the two men charged, the case illustrates how hard it is for the Administration to enforce a policy that violates widely held beliefs in human rights. As with the prohibition of alcohol and illegal immigration, entrepreneurs inevitably offer ways around regulations that defy values and common sense.
In principle, one prefers energy be channeled to changing unjust laws or to public acts of civil disobedience such as ended racial segregation. In practice, average people find ways to cope in order to maintain family ties. The numbers involved give their action political significance.
Antonio Zamora told the Cuba Summit conference in Newark last fall that tighter travel restrictions were imposed for two reasons. Wide scale visits by Cuban Americans (and by diverse main stream groups) were undermining the political message of the hard liners and were generating profits for travel agents and charter flight providers who used them to campaign to end all restrictions.
The distortion of priorities of the legal system to enforce the political agenda of a small anachronistic interest group is another reminder of how the country as a whole will benefit when Congress ends travel restrictions.
John McAuliff 2/25/07
The Voice of America has run a reasonable story about US-Cuba trade quoting extensively no less a source than Kirby Jones. While VOA is much more credible than the US funded propaganda stations (Radio Marti, Radio Free Asia), it has not been known for the independence of the BBC. Take a look at http://www.voanews.com/english/2007-04-02-voa25.cfm
That page offers a link to another interesting VOA story from March 19th, "Castro Seen Returning to Power, But Cuba's Style Changing":
As Cuba's government begins to transform, Andy Gomez says U.S. policy towards the island should change as well."We need to start thinking about the future, and about what we as a country in the international community can do, at a time that is crucial given what is happening in Latin America, to accelerate
change in Cuba," he said.Gomez says he feels the United States should begin revising the strict policies that prohibit most trade and activity with Cuba.
Also of interest is the language used by Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon in an interview with Reuters that was reported on March 21:
While Raul Castro has voiced a willingness to talk to the United States, Shannon suggested the United States would consider such a dialogue only as Cuba moved toward peaceful, democratic change."There is nothing new on that front because
... since Fidel Castro remains this ... controlling presence it means that Raul and the people around him are kind of frozen. There is not a lot that they can do," said Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America.
He said Washington wanted to see clear signs of change, including a release of political prisoners."Any positive step would be welcome ... We have made it clear that our engagement will be determined by change in Cuba and that the degree to which the Cubans show a willingness to take positive steps, we'll respond to it," Shannon added, without saying how such steps would be rewarded.
Is State now prepared to see a difference between Raul and Fidel, either really or for the sake of convenience? Does this create space for a new policy when Fidel is not present, or at least definitively not in charge, in contrast with past juvenile pronouncements that Raul was "Fidel light"? Is there in the works a non-"regime change" road map to more normal relations?
Our friends at CAAEF published a more skeptical interpretation of Shannon's spin, seeing it as a way of justifying the failure of predictions that Cuba would face a crisis post-Fidel, i.e. he is still there after all.
Also giving reason for optimism is the latest poll of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade and the forum at which they were presented at Brookings on Monday. The poll shows 55% favoring unrestricted travel, and 64% favoring return to the 2003 policies on family and "purposeful" people to people travel. http://www.fiu.edu/~ipor/cuba8/
The full transcript of the Brookings panel is available at http://www.brookings.edu/comm/events/20070402.htm and it can be watched as a web stream. (Look for it at http://www.brookings.edu/default.htm )
Consider the implications of a comment by Hugh Gladwin, Director, Institute for Public Opinion Research, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Florida International University:
"I think that there is a great desire for policy to change, but you are right in the sense that what is missing in this big picture is some kind of leadership that would then take this obvious diversity which for many of us -- it might be new to some of you -- but for many of us has been very obvious for many, many
years. But make it -- that's where leadership is lacking is to actually make this diversity matter and make it part of a Cuban identity as well."
Also interesting was a comment the moderator invited from the audience by Andres Rosenthal, formerly the Deputy Foreign Minister of Mexico:"We all know that there are 33 Latin American Caribbean countries that maintain diplomatic
relations with Cuba, normal diplomatic relations, some more friendly than others. But it is a vast majority of the hemisphere that was not the case until quite recently. There is today, if it were a decision of that majority to go to the OAS and reincorporate Cuba into the OAS, the United States would be isolated in its opposition. And we know that there is considerable opposition. But the fact is that it's very difficult for any of us to engage the U.S. on this discussion, and I don't know whether that will change or not. We're hopeful it will.The Spanish government is currently in Havana, the foreign minister of
Spain together with a rather large delegation today and tomorrow, the first visit to Havana by a foreign minister of an E.U. country since 2003, and the first Spanish visit since 1998, if I'm not mistaken."
This panel was the public aspect of a day long Brookings conference on Cuba which included the participation of the Secretary General of the OAS who has not been shy at voicing his disdain for US policy on Cuba.
Another indicator of how the Cuba travel issue is going mainstream was the Newshour segment on PBS last week. The content was generally sympathetic, but as important was simply recognition that the story was worth covering and that Flake and Serano deserved face time along with the Miami hard liners in Congress.