The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing last week on legislation - HR 874, the Freedom to Travel bill - that would drop restrictions on the right of American citizens to travel to Cuba. The feeling among progressive organizations active on that issue is that advances were achieved in the Nov. 19 debate.
Probably by design, no strong supporters of the Cuban Revolution were invited to testify. Rather, panelists invited by the Democrats emphasized that the ban on Cuba travel is irrational, violates the rights of U.S. citizens to travel to another country in peacetime, and throws away an opportunity to influence events on the island.
While the Republicans' ranking member of the committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtenen, R-Fla., tried to use the hearings to demonize the Cuban socialist system, and was supported in this by some panelists, including the former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba, James Cason, the effort basically backfired when several panelists who have been critical of the Cuban government came out strongly for dropping the travel ban.
Anti-Cuba figures such as Ros-Lehtenen had been harping on recent media stories about the Cuban government supposedly harassing a young Cuban Internet blogger, Yoani Sanchez. Since Sanchez has become somewhat famous outside Cuba for snarky criticisms of the Cuban system, Ros-Lehtenen and her allies were discomfited when a letter from Sanchez was read showing that she clearly supports ending the travel ban. Another Cuban "dissident," Miriam Leiva of the "Ladies in White" protest group, also testified for an end to the ban.
Likewise Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a libertarian conservative think tank funded by ExxonMobil and considered to be close to the armaments industry, denounced current Cuba policy: "By blocking citizen contacts and their concomitant flow of information, ideas and resources, we have erected an embargo on American influence in Cuba."
On the other hand Cason, the former Interests Section head, caused raised eyebrows when he said that the reason Americans want to travel to Cuba is to enjoy "rum, sun, cigars, song and sex." Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a Republican who has been a strong opponent of the travel ban, took Cason to task for this comment.
Army General Barry McCaffrey, the former U.S. drug czar, testified that "this policy has failed to precipitate regime change in Cuba, will not do so in the future, and harms U.S. interests by limiting the ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships that will transcend the inevitable transition that will occur in Cuba".
None of the panelists took a position entirely respectful of the Cuban people's right to develop their own society without foreign influence. Nor was there much talk of how Cuba has contributed to the well being of its own people and that of dozens of poor countries to which it has provided vital assistance.
A small majority of committee members, including chair Howard Berman, D-Calif., appear supportive of HR 874, which has at this point 178 co-sponsors, including Republicans and Democrats. A companion bill in the Senate, S 428, has 33 cosponsors, also both Republican and Democrat.
For at least the past decade, there has been a tendency among some Republicans, mostly from farm states with crops to sell to Cuba, to want to drop the travel ban and the blockade. These include major GOP figures such as Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
This may outweigh another recent tendency, which is for the Cuban exile ultra-right networks to channel much of their campaign donation money to Democratic legislators, instead of giving it all to Republicans. Some Democrats who had previously supported change in our Cuba policy have backed off after receiving this money.
It is not known what stance President Obama will take if the bill should land on his desk. He has so far said he wants more "gestures" from the Cubans before he will support changes in U.S. policy beyond what he has already done, namely ending restrictions on visits by Cuban-Americans to their relatives on the island, and beginning to explore sale of fiber optic equipment to the Cubans.
The Washington-based Latin American Working Group (www.lawg.org), which has been pushing for changes in U.S. Cuba policy, urges intensive lobbying for the House bill and its Senate equivalent.