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.

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