Unavoidable Choices on Cuba for the White House and Congress

We are at a time of testing. Are the institutions of government in the U.S. finally able to overcome well-funded special interest exile politics to chart a rational course with Cuba?

The White House dismally failed the first round. It generated excitement that it would use executive authority before Congress returned from the August recess to reverse Bush-era restrictions on non-tourist travel. News stories suggested the breadth and administrative implementation of the new policy would go beyond the Clinton era, just as Obama did for Cuban American travel.

Predictable hostility came from the Cuban-American quintet in Congress, supported by their indefatigable ally Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the same people who oppose even unrestricted family travel. Just as in April 2009, the White House buckled under largely one-sided pressure, this time reportedly after new regulations had actually been approved by the president and the secretary of state.

The president's political advisers decided that opening up dialogue between the people of the U.S. and Cuba would have to wait once again, this time until after the mid-term election on November 2nd. Another opportunity for presidential leadership was squandered, contributing to further disillusionment in the Democratic base and among independents who had voted for change.

Congress looked to be doing no better. House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Howard Berman declined to use his authority to cede jurisdiction which would have allowed the travel and ag sales bill to go to a floor vote in July after approval by the Agriculture Committee. Some feared he would lack the votes and determination to carry the travel section of the bill through his committee.

The quintet boasted to Congressional Quarterly:

Sires said he and Wasserman-Schultz have warned Democratic leaders the bill would anger Cuban-American voters and hurt the electoral prospects of Florida Democrats. 'This is not something that you want to do now.'

However, Berman confounded his critics. At noon on Wednesday, September 29, the confrontation between past and future takes place with streaming video of a sure to be contentious "mark-up" of the travel language in HR 4645 (see it here). The result is not certain.

More than half of the members of the Committee received contributions from the pro-embargo anti-travel US-Cuba Democracy PAC: 26 of 47 received a total of $178,000 in the current and previous election cycles. Only a third, 17, have cosponsored travel legislation. (Annotated list here.)

On the positive side Berman said he would not go this far unless he had the votes. One previously anti-travel representative, Gary Ackerman from New York, has announced he will support the bill. In its favor, the cause of freedom to travel has a host of unlikely allies for a variety of motives, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agribusiness, the travel industry, human rights organizations, educators, advocacy groups and moderate Cuban Americans.

Campaign donations emanating overwhelmingly from a single ethnic community based in south Florida (see list here) can be a pre-election embarrassment if they lead a member to vote against prevailing sentiment in his or her own district. Very few committee members have a significant number of Cuban-American constituents and their electorate presumably reflects the two-thirds national support for freedom to travel. That reality doesn't matter unless activists within each representative's district are able to bring the contradiction to the fore with calls to Washington, letters to the editor, press conferences, delegations, vigils, etc.

Primary focus on the House committee until Wednesday takes the administration off the hook for a few days, unless an enterprising reporter at the White House or State Department presses for an opinion about the legislation. Will the administration spokesperson say full travel is premature, offer moral support for the bill or duck the question? At a minimum, is it clear the president does not intend to follow the Bush path and threaten a veto? (Perhaps a curious reporter might also ask if it is true the White House political staff blocked the announcement of people-to-people travel due to special interest pressure and pre-election nervousness.)

Should the travel language not make it out of committee, or be crippled by amendments, the focus will shift entirely to the options for change in the hands of the executive. If it does pass, activists nationwide will have the recess to get their representative and senators on the record, paying special attention to those who have not cosponsored either travel bill. The run up to an election increases opportunity for grass roots access and sensitivity to constituent views. Senators are important too as the legislation must pass both houses or start from scratch next January.

The lame duck session after November 2nd may be the last chance to end travel restrictions for at least two years. Although several Republicans are important leaders in the effort to restore freedom to travel, a GOP takeover of either house will be problematic. For example hard liner Ileana Ros-Lehtinen could replace Howard Berman.

Should legislative branch control flip, it is hard to imagine Democratic Congressional leaders spontaneously elevating Cuba to their must do list in the lame-duck session. The White House might also find a new reason to be cautious, not wanting to alienate the Republican leaders it must deal with over higher priority issues.

Representative Berman offered the most hopeful view in a conference call with bloggers. He speculated that if his committee approves the travel language, it will encourage the White House to go ahead with non-tourist travel before the election complicates the picture.

Short-sighted officials in the White House evidently dismissed as irrelevant the impact in Cuba of putting off action on non-tourist travel. As a result as Cuba struggles to reconcile conflicting views about release of imprisoned political opponents and the most far reaching reform of its economy since the revolution, the Obama Administration is frittering away the potential of making a positive contribution. It needs to hear from concerned organizations and individuals that further delay is not an option.

The issue of Cuba policy has long held disproportionate political weight in Washington. The choices made by Congress and the president in coming days will be a dramatic demonstration for better or for worse of the ability of both branches of government to overcome the entrenched power of money and special interests.

For the White House, it is an opportunity to re-inspire the country.

Links and resources

  • Practical steps Cuba feels the Obama administration has failed to take are listed in its 2010 case against the embargo for the annual UN debate (click here).
  • The Havana Journal summarizes and links to the report by the Public Campaign Action Fund of10,777,692 given since the 2004 election cycle to at least 337 federal candidates by the pro-embargo PAC and its hard line supporters.