Thursday, April 12, 2007

2007—The Year of Transition … in US-Cuba Relations

Tuesday, February 6, 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?)

Challenges

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.

Personal reflections

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.

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