Saturday, February 28, 2009

Stategy and Tactics 2

Further thoughts about why I believe a two track executive + legislative approach is required if we are serious about changing US-Cuba relations.

1) We can not afford to leave the Administration to its own devices. We should push against prolonging the interagency review without significant action by creating a buzz through our networks on a nationwide as well as DC basis. We must bring to the surface the full potential of what Obama can and ought to do consistent with his own goals and values. Staying silent guarantees that the only pressure he feels is from the "go slow on change" camp.

Ones stance on this question depends on
a) whether you think it is positive or negative if the Administration allows the twelve categories, and
b) how that balances with a realistic assessment of prospects for legislative victory and the likely time line.

If a credible case is made that there is a high probability of victorious floor votes in the next two or three months. I am not as concerned about the danger of just focusing on Congress. However if we are talking about summer or fall floor votes and an uncertain result, the equation is different.

A Cuban American friend writes from Miami (edited for style):

I spent two days in Capitol Hill with a very strong Jewish American delegation who traveled with me to Cuba last year. We visited Berman's office, Engel himself and other very important members and the fight for ALL travel is a difficult one, a long one and it might not be a winnable one this year, with Reid, Menendez, Ros Lehtinen, Wasserman Schultz and others (not to mention the PAC which has already greased all new members' pockets) putting on a strong fight.

The President must sign the executive order for Cuban American family travel and expand on his powers for purposeful a first step. Congress can then put up a good fight and we will see if they can deliver…

I, and the others that accompanied me, did not get any "warm" feelings about the win for travel for ALL Americans. I have worked for over 10 years to change US policy towards Cuba from trying to amend the food and medicine embargo to lifting travel, not just for Cuban Americans but for all Americans...It pains me that many of our allies are not there to support unconditionally and urgently the President signing the executive order for family travel and possibly more...and don’t see it as a first step in mending policy. It is the correct thing and the moral thing to do RIGHT NOW and we should all be on this page.

It does not mean that we would rest one second to continue to press Congress to pass those bills, but the opposition is fierce, the money is flowing and if our allies put all their political capital to press only this Congressional tactic, we have a real chance of having NOTHING at the end of the day and that would be truly disastrous and unpardonable.

A bird in the hand is especially worth two in the bush in this case because it allows a wide range of institutions to create programs with Cuba even as soon as this spring and summer, and certainly for fall and winter. If there is likely that a bill is not approved until summer or fall, or even next year, we will have lost the energies of the participants in pressing Congress after they come home. We will also lose a travel season and thus income for Cuba and for pro-travel US organizations.

Having a Congressional majority in 2000 produced legislation that was a big victory on agriculture, but the same legislation contained the codification, i.e. limitation, to the 12 categories of travel, taking away the previous flexibility of the President. Legislation is like making sausages it has been said. The other side is quick on its feet and has shown that it has more firepower than we do.

We cannot base our tactics on being in the best of all worlds. If the above assessment based on recent Hill visits by a very experienced person is accurate, or reality falls somewhere in between, and we don't clearly have a majority of votes, what happens? Do we have evidence that enough has changed in terms of Congress from the twin defeats on the democracy funds and the Rangel amendment that we are prepared to bet the farm? Objectively we still have the problem of human rights and political prisoners that drastically undermined support after the “black spring” of 2003 not to mention the well placed funds and political machine of the other side.

2) Leverage on the Administration is greater now while it is deciding how it needs to present itself at the Summit of the Americas, the review process is ongoing and on the heels of the Lugar and Brookings recommendations. Once the review is concluded, the Administration will be in the mode of selling its conclusions to Congress and to the media. The Democratic majority and the chattering class will be reluctant for months to directly challenge whatever emerges from considered interagency deliberations which puts us into the 2010 election cycle an an open Senate seat in Florida.

Motivating our base for sustained work is complicated. I suspect most of our strength lies in districts and states occupied by natural supporters of travel legislation. When the focus is spread among 435 districts and 50 states, some will be easy and some will be impossible. The challenge is what happens to those energies that have either quickly achieved cosponsors or reached an impenetrable wall.

Focusing attention on a single national target in the White House was pointless when the target was as impervious to reason and our constituency's opinion as Bush. However, when the target is philosophically inclined to, and has many personal links with, our side, mounting a national campaign to appeal to the President’s better angels, or to reinforce and prod our friends on the inside, engages everyone regardless of where they live.

The click-throughs on my newsletter links suggest our base is more likely to give us leverage with the White House than with Congress, at least for the next year.

For what it is worth, the top four were

26% the White House comment page
13% the You Tube interview with Mariela Castro
10% the bill text and cosponsors on Thomas
7% the Florida PAC recipients and donors

(newsletter can be seen here)

3) Bottom line is that the more we get from the Administration, the better positioned we are intellectually and with a reenergized base to influence Congress. If we abandon seeking to influence the executive, minimal policy change could result. We will be forced to challenge an Administration that is very popular with our supporters and the country. We need Obama to do enough with his existing power and to be positive about further action by Congress so that we are working with him not against him. It will be far easier for us if the Administration is advocating rather than ignoring or opposing partial engagement through non-tourist travel and our job is to argue the need for Congress to fulfill the potential of full engagement.

We need to push back aggressively against the arrogant televised boast of Sen. Menendez (D, NJ) as reported from Miami:

“The only thing the administration is going to allow is a roll back to Clinton era family travel" and "if it came down to listening to Senator Lugar (who has called for broad reconsideration of US policy) or him and others in the Cuban American community, Obama would listen to him and the others"

The Omnibus Appropriations bill has created confusion about the status of family travel and the practical effect of non-enforcement provisions. (more here) The clearest way to solve the problem is for the President to fulfill his promise of unlimited family travel and remittances. The only way to do that without discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and national origin is to also authorize the rest on non-tourist travel. It also speaks to Obama’s value of dialog and responds to broader American and international opinion.

It is not a question of giving up before the battle in Congress, but rather being smart about how to win. Given reports that we may be in trouble at the Committee level and on the Floor, and that Democratic members are reluctant to cosponsor because they don’t want to get out ahead of their own Administration, we need to think hard about what changes the dynamic in our favor.

Hill people I've talked to, both three months ago and now, simply don't agree with the argument that the Administration opening the door to non-tourist travel will undermine work on the legislation. They see it as just the opposite.

If a Congressional office says it is not ready yet to cosponsor the legislation, but it will urge the White House to authorize family and non-tourist people-to-people travel, were they more likely to have said yes to cosponsinb if they were not also asked to call the White House?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Strategy and Tactics, February 2009

There is effective unanimity on our strategic goal of unrestricted travel for all American, as reflected in the slogan "travel for all, not for some, not for none". All sectors are pushing in the same direction, including business, agriculture, the travel industry, centrist think tanks, advocacy groups, solidarity networks and all but the most hard line sectors of the Cuban American community. The blogosphere is buzzing, pro and con.

However on tactics there has been a sometimes sharp disagreement between those who believe it is essential to simultaneously press the Obama Administration to go as far as it legally can and push for Congressional action. vs. those who believe that the single legitimate focus is Congress as the only place where all travel restrictions can be ended.

Regrettably, I believe a Congress-in-isolation strategy may seriously undermine our prospects for victory this year. Foreign policy is widely seen as the prerogative of the executive branch, especially when the legislative and executive are newly held by the same party.

Realistically, winning in Congress is not a sure thing and, in any case, we could lose many months, perhaps into the fall or later.

Let me be clear. I agree it is vitally important to engage every national organization and grass roots network in support of the legislation. Obtaining cosponsors for HR 874 and S 428 is a concrete focus for local work and an important metric of how well we are doing. Growing the cosponsor list also encourages greater boldness by the executive.

However, ignoring the substantial changes that the Administration can and should make in a timely manner could be a costly mistake, a classic example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

I believe we must simultaneously urge people at every level to not only work for the legislation, but also to find ways to impact the interagency policy review currently underway, including use of the on line tool the Administration has offered to maintain engagement with its base .

To be blunt, we cannot afford to let our friends "off the hook".

The Administration is one month overdue in meeting its commitment to unlimited travel and remittances for Cuban Americans. If you have not read Alvaro Fernandez impassioned plea for family travel without further delay, go here

Given everything Barack Obama stands for, he will be inclined to use the same authority to provide general licenses in a non-discriminatory fashion for the other categories of non-tourist travel. But he faces substantial negative pressure and there must be a positive balance coming from our side.

It is simply not acceptable, either for us or for Western Hemisphere opinion, for an Obama Administration to do the minimum of only family travel. Karen DeYoung's report in Saturday's Washington Post on the far reaching letter and staff report from Senator Lugar, contained the following:

"An administration official said yesterday that it was "not unreasonable" to expect that Obama would ease constraints on family travel and remittances to Cuba before he attends the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. "

The Republican staff report does not address other non-tourist travel.

I don't go as far as a colleague who believes that the Congressional route is a waste of time because Bob Menendez and Rahm Emanuel have already agreed that legislation will not happen. However, I do take seriously what key Congressional staff have told me of the uncertain potentially long time-line for floor votes, and the benefit to their effort of maximum prior Presidential action.

If we can not get this White House to act boldly within its own sphere now, why do we think it will lean on Congress later to pass legislation? If it does not, why do we believe that Miami's well funded operation in Congress can be beaten in 2009 when they creamed us in the last two recorded House votes? If we do not win on the Hill this year, is it more likely in 2010 when there is a wide open race for the Florida Senate seat?

Jake Colvin wrote a long well documented report on the power the executive has that goes beyond travel, in fact to suspend virtually every aspect of the embargo except tourism.

Do we risk fighting the last war on uncertain legislative ground and missing real opportunities with a potentially more sympathetic and more powerful executive?

Steve Clemons in The Washington Note makes an important passing comment in his analysis of the Lugar letter and staff report:

"someone close to Shannon and those potentially contributing to this policy review told me it would be important for the administration 'to hear from Congress.'"

Cosponsoring legislation to end all travel restrictions is only one way for Congress to make itself heard, and may not be the most effective in the relevant time frame. It could set too high a threshold, either because of disagreement with full travel, or because of reluctance to challenge so soon the executive's role on foreign policy.

In any case, gathering a significant enough list of cosponsors may take too long to influence the policy review. As I recall we were at it for months on the Rangel bill.

It is not hard for folks to ask their Representative and Senators in the same e-mail, fax or call:
1) Will you cosponsor HR 874 or S 428 to end all travel restrictions?
2) Will you ask the White House to quickly authorize general licenses for Cuban Americans and other non-tourist travelers?

Please urge your contacts do so before we lose an irreplaceable opportunity!


I just spoke at the Educational Travel Conference in New Orleans. With five days notice, more than forty people participated in a session on Cuba at 7:45 a.m. It was one more illustration that the sector that helped produce 84,500 non-Cuban American visitors in 2003 is ready to reengage as soon as Obama opens the door.

The serious visitors to Cuba brought by such programs will be opinion leaders and trend setters. Their return or new experience will make them far more motivated and effective advocates with Congress--and supporters of later more controversial moves by the Administration to fully normalize relations.

Their travel will also bring resources and recruits to the organizations and businesses seeking to end all restrictions.