Anya Landau French joined the Lexington Institute in February 2008 as a Senior Fellow, focusing on U.S.-Cuban affairs.
With the anti-climactic departure of Fidel Castro from power in Cuba, it appears that the United States plans to hurry up and continue waiting for change in Cuba.
The waiting may soon be over. Today, twenty-four U.S. senators, led by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), wrote to Secretary Rice (for letter click here) — as did 104 members of the House last week–urging a rethink of U.S. policy toward the island of Cuba.
“There is no magic U.S. policy that will transform Cuba,” the senators wrote. “But with Cuba facing a period of change, we have a new opportunity to seize. Our policy based on sanctions, passivity, and waiting should end. We need a new approach that defends human rights, is confident about the value of American engagement with Cubans, builds new economic bridges between America and Cuba, and seeks every possible avenue of increasing American influence.”
While it is highly doubtful that Secretary Rice will have the opportunity to heed their advice in her remaining months in office, Congress may be set to press the issue next year, when there is a new administration to work with.
Majorities in both chambers have repeatedly voted to ease current U.S. restrictions on travel to the island, and have favored facilitating agricultural exports to Cuba. Previously, President Bush strongly opposed any relaxation of U.S. restrictions relating to Cuba, and former Majority Leader Tom Delay was known to make sure any such changes would die in conference.
What might happen next year, when there is a new president and a new Congress?
Most surely, a coalition of largely farm-state Democrats and Republicans will again get behind legislation to ease restrictions on cash transfers and bilateral travel by US exporters and Cuban buyers. But this time, the president might not stand in the way of a one-way export opportunity.
A majority in Congress is also likely to ease new restrictions on Cuban American family travel and remittances to the island, whether by clarifying the 2000 guidelines for categories of allowable travel, or by refusing to fund enforcement against such travel.
While easing family travel restrictions would be considered a humanitarian act, giving preference to one group of travelers would be an untenable position. Lifting the entire (de facto) ban on travel to Cuba remains the swiftest means to extend U.S. influence on the island and preserve all Americans’ rights to travel, but it faces determined–minority–opposition in both chambers of Congress.
Yet, such opposition could be overcome, and the next president may not bother (when there are far more pressing matters in play) to veto less-expansive legislation that categorically allows and encourages people-to-people, humanitarian, academic, religious, family, and agricultural export-related travel to Cuba. All such categories of exchanges are already legal, but President Bush curtailed or ended them altogether four years ago by revising the regulations interpreting the law.
What else might the 111th Congress do? Numerous issues sitting on the back burner deserve prompt attention. Certainly there will be interest in oversight of such matters as human and labor rights advocacy, agricultural trade and other economic issues, US AID grantmaking, drug interdiction, military-to-military contacts, the US designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and anti-terrorism cooperation, Cuban intelligence operations in the United States, intellectual property and other rights under signed conventions, settlement of U.S. claims against Cuba, return of fugitives from justice in the U.S. and Cuba, Radio and TV Marti quality and viewership, and environment cooperation to prevent damage to the Florida coastline due to oil exploration in Cuban waters.
The foregoing legislative agenda would mark a clear shift in U.S. policy toward increasing U.S. influence–leverage arguably more potent than sanctions–and protecting U.S. interests relative to Cuba. There is no guarantee that conditions in Cuba will improve as a result of a U.S. policy shift. But no matter what policy the U.S. president stakes out, it is not likely that this Congress, or the next, will put much stock in waiting another fifty years to find out.
— Anya Landau French