Opinion Leaders Hold Forth While Dodd Visits Cuba

John McAuliff
Monday, October 4, 2010

Breaking news: Senator Christopher Dodd is in Cuba.

Is this a pre-retirement last hurrah as chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Might he be laying the groundwork for a valedictory lame-duck initiative to end travel restrictions? Radio Marti speculated his visit was connected to resolving the Alan Gross problem.

That's nice to imagine, but seems unlikely unless the US somehow acknowledges that Gross violated Cuban law on three counts (a democracy project funded by USAID, inappropriate use of a tourist visa, providing illegal satellite transmission equipment). Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations has an excellent op ed published in the International Herald Tribune and on the New York Times web page contrasting change in Cuba with inertia in Washington.

Here is part of it: In one example, senior political advisers in the White House recently shut down the revival of a Clinton administration “people-to-people” program ­ one approved over the summer by President Obama, his secretary of state and sub-cabinet deputies from throughout the executive branch ­ to allow Americans tied to educational, cultural, religious and other nongovernmental organizations to travel to Cuba. Senate and House Democrats from Florida and New Jersey persuaded President Obama’s political hands to stop the modest opening lest they inflame Cuban-American voters and jeopardize campaign contributions.

Such legislators also fear that by allowing some Americans to travel to Cuba, the White House could strengthen supporters of legislation to lift the entire travel ban, scheduled for a politically decisive vote in the House Foreign Affairs Committee during the lame duck session of Congress. As with the White House, these legislators have lobbied their colleagues in the Congress that such a move will backfire against Democrats in 2010 and 2012 elections. But their argument is out of date.

Cuban-American majorities now support extending their right to travel to all Americans. They are eagerly investing in their families’ small businesses and with all manner of goods they ship down on 30 weekly flights from Miami. Furthermore, most Cuban-Americans still vote Republican in presidential elections ­ as they did in 2008. And if they vote for the one Cuban-American candidate running for the Senate this fall, it will be on bread and butter issues, not Cuba policy.

The perverse and decidedly un-American effect of the administration’s political timidity is that only Cuban-Americans, most of whom don’t even vote for Democrats, can now participate in the changes afoot in Cuba. Phil Peters weighs in strongly in his excellent Cuban Triangle blog on why attention should be focused on the President: With the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s decision not to proceed with Cuba travel legislation before the House began a month-long recess, the only remaining possibility for that legislation is the post-election “lame duck” Congressional session. Which is to say that the chances of passage in the current Congress now approach zero.

Reform of Cuba policy will now have to come from the Obama Administration, and it’s likely to be more gradual and piecemeal than the complete removal of travel restrictions contemplated by Congress. Why is the extremist position of Senators Menendez and Nelson and Representatives Sires and Wasserman-Schultz given more weight by the White House than this alternative perspective by weightier Democrats which reflects the position of two-thirds of Americans and a majority of Cuban Americans?

September 28, 2010 President Barack Obama The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear Mr. President, We write to express our support for the regulatory changes that your administration is considering to increase people-to-people exchanges between the United States and Cuba. These exchanges could have a profound impact on both of our nations, building relationships and goodwill between our societies....There is broad support in Congress for taking these measures to reduce barriers on trade and travel with Cuba. We would welcome your support for these efforts.

If we work together to increase U.S. food exports, and allow our citizens to travel freely to Cuba, we can establish and strengthen ties that benefit the American and the Cuban people. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) joined by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Tom Harkin (D- Iowa), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Tim Johnson (D- S.D.), Mary Landrieu (D- La.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Debbie Stabenow (D- Mich.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Mark Pryor (D- Ark.), Jim Webb (D-Va.), Claire McCaskill (D- Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D- Minn.)

Full text of letter here Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, poses among his More Precisise Questions Candidates for Office Need to Hear: Would you support relaxing the embargo on trade and travel to Cuba? Canadians can go there. The Pork Producers Council, to cite an example of one business interest, wants to be able to trade more freely with Cubans.

The Cuban government announced recently that it is laying off a half-million government workers. There may be signals that Cuba is opening, ever so slightly, to business. Has the U.S. embargo outlived its use? The Pork Producers Council says: "Iowa State economist Dermot Hayes estimates that U.S. pork exports would increase by $28.2 million once the travel and financing restrictions on Cuba are lifted. Over the past year, the United States shipped about $13.4 million of pork to Cuba.

The policy change also would create about 6,000 additional jobs in the United States, according to a study conducted by Texas A&M University, which also found that total U.S. exports would increase by $365 million a year." Certainly the run-up to a highly contested election is the best time for citizens to put incumbents and candidates on the spot. They are both more available and more responsive to constituents. Someone reading this might even be lucky enough to be in a back-yard conversation with President Obama.

-John McAuliff Fund for Reconciliation and Development

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