This is a guest post from Anya Landau French, who directs the New America Foundation/U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative. This post originally appeared at The Havana Note.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, a conservative Democrat from Minnesota, is generally a soft-spoken, easy-going legislator who eschews demagoguery. But he sure knows how to move even the thorniest legislation.
Today, Peterson’s House Agriculture Committee approved a bill that would lift the Cuba travel ban for all Americans, and eliminate several hurdles to humanitarian exports to the island. It’s an historic moment: the first time Congress has taken a step toward full elimination of the travel ban (as opposed to the easier target of withholding enforcement funds) which keeps the vast majority of Americans from traveling to Cuba – with of course the very large exception of hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who, thanks to the Obama administration now enjoy unlimited travel rights to the island.
But the historic victory didn’t come without theatrics and a blind oppositional adherence to a talking point that goes something like this: “We can’t lift the travel ban because it would help the Castro regime and abandon the Cuban democracy movement on the island.” Nevermind that 74 of Cuba’s best known human rights and democracy advocates, including former and current political prisoners, wrote to every member of Congress earlier this month arguing that the bill’s benefits to the Cuban people outweigh any benefit to the Castro regime, and would not represent an abandonment of them or their cause. But perhaps most distressing was one member’s willingness to hold his constituents’ right to travel as a “bargaining chip” with the Cuban government.
Determined as they were to fight on the anachronistic Cold War turf with which they’re most comfortable, travel ban supporters lost today’s fight for one reason that trumps all reasons: Restoring freedom to travel serves America’s interests. From the local farmers in Maryland’s conservative Eastern Shore to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, members faced overwhelming pressure from constituent interests to put America first.
Now attention turns to whether and when the bill will be considered by the full House, and eventually reach the President’s desk. Last fall, Speaker Pelosi said “I ‘ve always been a supporter of lifting the travel ban to Cuba.” And while Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a staunch Cuban American proponent of travel restrictions, was quick to promise a filibuster if his colleagues try to move similar legislation through the Senate, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) says he’s already locked up the 60 votes he’d need to break a filibuster. So, where is the Obama Administration? Keeping its powder dry, for now. According to a State Department spokesman today, “Congress’ addition to the robust discussion on the future of Cuba is healthy and an example of the democratic process that we would like to see in Cuba.”
I’m not sure I’d call today’s debate “healthy”, but it shows that Congress is facing up to the failure of a Cuba policy for which it shares responsibility with the Executive Branch, and finally doing something about it.
— Anya Landau French