Monday, December 31, 2007

Congress in 2008

We began 2007 with a mood of optimism about how much Congress would do about Cuba. After all, bipartisan majorities in both the Republican controlled House and Senate had voted in favor of travel, only to see those victories stolen away by Tom DeLay and other GOP leaders.

The only obstacle after the 2006 election seemed to be a Presidential veto, and even that could be mastered with enough determination by the new Democratic leadership who had voted for travel while in the minority. Instead we ended the year with two losses on secondary issues, no test of travel, and a mood of passivity if not defeatism.

By a recorded vote of 254 to 170 the House in June passed an amendment by Lincoln Diaz-Ballart to restore to the appropriations bill “democracy program” Administration requested funding that had been reduced to $9 million by the Appropriations committee. With the support of 66 Democrats and all but six Republicans, the budget was increased five-fold to $45.7 million--despite a valiant effort by floor manager Nita Lowey. At one level, the vote was largely symbolic. The money is a boondoggle, a classic earmark for a special interest group. It covers unheard and unseen propaganda broadcasts from Radio and TV Marti and a variety of ineffective projects intended to intervene in the domestic affairs of a neighboring sovereign country for the internationally discredited purpose of regime change. (Further details here.)

This budget for 2008 is the equivalent of 70% of the total amount of USAID’s Cuba program between 1996 and 2007 of $65 million. The irony, as pointed out by Tony Zamora and Alfredo Duran, prominent Democrats in Miami, was that the Congress had let itself be maneuvered into appropriating millions of dollars that will in effect be recycled into walking around money for the Republican election machine. I witnessed the intellectual version of that partisan subsidy when I attended a conference on “Cuba: What to Expect” organized by the USAID funded Cuba Transition Project. Watch it for yourself, especially the final panel on US policy, and decide whether it represents use of federal funds to advance a particular political interest.

The second defeat came in a well-intentioned but terribly handled amendment in July by Representative Charles Rangel to the Agriculture bill which sought to eliminate OFAC bureaucratic obstacles to export sales to Cuba. The sponsor’s office openly acknowledges that the language was introduced without any preparation or effort to marshal support from allies and bore unique handicaps. Yet the 182-245 defeat was treated by sympathetic Congressional offices and Cuba advocates as definitive evidence that nothing could be done legislatively before 2009

Explanations of these defeats often focus on the well utilized PAC money and other contributions raised in south Florida and given out to Republicans and Democrats who have few Cuban Americans among their constituents. According to federal election data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, the US-Cuba Democracy PA C gave just 29 % to Democrats in 2004, but in 2006 they received 44 % of the $330,000 doled out. The PAC gave a total of $384,500 to federal candidates after the 2006 general election. As reported in The Hill, “Fifty-two of the 66 Democrats who voted against Rangel’s amendment have received one or more contributions from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC since the beginning of the 2007-2008 cycle, according to Federal Election Commission filings. It has given $56,000 to 22 Democratic freshmen this year, and 17 of those freshmen voted against Rangel’s amendment.” . (see further analysis of Ag vote and list of PAC recipients here)

Others focus on the effective negative intervention by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz who has received a total of $22,000 from the Cuba Democracy PAC to her leadership PAC and campaign committee.
She is a liberal Democrat from Ft. Lauderdale who became close to the Diaz-Ballart brothers as a member of the Florida state legislature. Whether she is motivated by anti-Castro ideology or by statewide political ambitions, her views do not reflect either the pro travel positions of the two daily papers that serve her district, the Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald, or probably those of her constituents who are only 20% Hispanic.

In addition, there is no evidence that the ostensibly pro travel House leadership ever counseled her that carrying water for right wing Republicans was not the best path for an ambitious junior member. None of the House and Senate leaders have responded to the on line letters asking action on family and non-tourist purposeful travel sent to them in October which have now attracted an impressive cross section of 418 signers.

Congressional staff explain the disappointing performance of the Democrats by pointing to the greater national and political priority of frustrated votes on Iraq and health care. Why should the leadership be expected to give priority to Cuba with expectation of a guaranteed veto? In addition, the subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs is chaired by pro-embargo but otherwise liberal Eliot Engel from New York. Even the full Foreign Affairs committee could not be counted on to allow pro travel legislation to reach the floor, despite the record number of 120 cosponsors on HR 654.

Political observers noted that the Democrats are still gun shy of losing Florida in the Presidential race if the hard line Cuban American block becomes alienated, despite the fact that 55% of the community now favors unrestricted travel for all Americans and 64% support returning to pre-2004 rules. An alternative interpretation takes account of this opinion shift and of the evolving political loyalties of Cuban Americans , arguing that forcing President Bush and Congressional Republicans to oppose family travel in the actual election year will have a greater impact on Cuban American swing voters.

The traditional key actors on Cuba may also have been affected by Presidential candidate loyalties. Representatives Charles Rangel and Jim McGovern are backing Hillary Clinton. A vote against travel consistent with her campaign position would not have helped Senator Clinton's appeal to liberals.

Representative Bill Delahunt announced in lateDecember that he is backing Barack Obama whose pro-family travel only campaign position is consistent with Delahunt’s bill, HR 757. Delahunt did not hold anticipated hearings either on the scandalous waste of Cuba Democracy funding or on family travel in 2007. Tactically, there will be more reason for him to do so in 2008, especially if Obama is leading or at least is still a viable candidate. Dramatic hearings and a floor vote on family travel could also contribute directly to the effort to defeat the Diaz-Ballart brothers.

Three Congressional initiatives did lay the groundwork intellectually for policy change. First came the Government Accounting Office (GAO) report in November 2006 on the misuse of Cuba democracy funds, requested by Representatives Delahunt and Jeff Flake. The International Trade Commission produced a report in July 2007 at the request of Sen. Max Baucus that demonstrated conclusively the substantial economic benefit to US farmers, manufacturers and travel agents of ending the embargo (Investigation No. 332—489). In addition, Representatives Rangel and Barbara Lee obtained a dramatic report from the General Accounting Office in December which demonstrated conclusively that OFAC and Miami airport inspectors were spending a disproportionate amount of time and staff energy on the fruitless task of sustaining travel restrictions and blocking import of souvenirs.

Regrettably this report, and an excellent hearing held by Senator Baucus were buried in the pre holiday end of session crunch. Nevertheless, the documentation is available if legislators find reason to make use of it, either because of their own political agenda or because angry and weighty constituents remonstrate with them about the sorry showing of 2007. (Representatives and Senators will be home until January 15th.)

The future attitude of Congress may be shaped by two local races in Florida with national implications. Lincoln Diaz-Balart is likely to face a challenge from the very popular former mayor of Hialeah. Younger brother Mario could be taken on by Joe Garcia (see draft Joe web site and a very well done campaign commercial). Family travel is likely to be a big issue in both races, and may prove decisive. The Congressional battle is likely to have an impact on the Presidential race, particularly if Obama is the nominee or Clinton retools her position away from its current Bush-light stance.

The defeat of two Congressmen with family ties to the Batista regime will have national impact as it will symbolize the decline of the Cuban American dinosaurs. The ardor of Wasserman Schultz is likely to cool and a Democratic President inclined to policy change will be dealing with a more sympathetic Congress.

Pro travel forces outside of south Florida will be solicited for donations to the campaign to replace the Diaz-Ballarts. While their replacement will be widely welcomed, the enthusiasm of non-Cuban Americans will no doubt be greater if the candidates publicly extend their support to all travel or at least to pre-2004 non-tourist people to people exchanges.

Some long time normalization activists will have trouble with Garcia’s former role as the highly visible director of the Cuban American National Foundation as well as by his overtly anti-regime rhetoric. However, my own view is that the only way we can win travel is to bring together all those favoring change in US policy on Cuba, regardless of their history, politics, motivation and immediate goals.

We will face the same dilemma about legislation. My strong preference is that Delahunt expand his legislation to include non-tourist travel because that will broaden the base of national support and have a much bigger impact on the evolution of US-Cuba relations. As vital as family travel is for both humanitarian and tactical reasons, it will do relatively little to impact mainstream US public opinion and to create a favorable atmosphere for the remarkable debate underway in Cuba about future economic and social policy.

We must open the door to wide ranging people to people exchanges in 2008 not wait until 2009. Visits once again by tens of thousands of Americans from world affairs councils, cultural and university groups, professional and business organizations, performers and sports teams, high school and college students, humanitarian and religious delegations, etc. will provide the kind of informal trust building and familiarization that are essential for a real change by the next President.

--John McAuliff

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