U.S. prepares for change on Cuba

Congress is beginning to act on Cuba. Justifications for lifting the U.S. blockade of Cuba have gained currency. The policy has had bipartisan support for almost half a century.

In February a “Freedom to Travel Act” was introduced in the House as H.R. 874 and the Senate as S.428. The proposed legislation would end all restrictions on Cuba travel by rescinding present regulations and prohibiting presidents from blocking travel. Its provisions are more far-reaching than changes proposed by President Obama, who promised during his campaign to reverse Bush restrictions on visits to Cuba by Cuban-Americans and on money sent to relatives there.

The House last week passed an appropriations bill with provisions that would end funds for enforcing those measures, for one year only. The bill authorizes travel to Cuba for the purpose of selling food and medicines. Cuba would no longer have to pay for food imports prior to shipment.

Senate opponents of the legislation, led by Senators Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are primed for battle, resolved, according to Alborada News, to restrict any changes to those promised by President Obama.

Last week Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attached comments to a minority committee report. He noted that “restrictive U.S. policies toward Cuba are ineffective, have failed to achieve their stated purpose of promoting democracy and should be reevaluated to take advantage of recent political changes on the island.” The report, written by a member of Lugar’s staff, calls for easing trade and travel restrictions as well as agreements on drug interdiction and migration. Lugar would allow Cuba to borrow from world financial organizations.

The Brookings Institute, Inter-American Dialogue and the Council on Foreign Relations issued reports calling for a U.S. opening to Cuba. As explained by Julia Sweig of the latter group, “U.S. policy toward Cuba may be the biggest failure in the history of American foreign policy.”

These analyses focus mostly on presumed immediate benefits of change. Sweig worries that “a chance to play a constructive role in Cuba” may soon be lost. She cites trade benefits and the usefulness of dialogue on issues like security, terrorism, migration, and port security. Potential environmental hazards related to Cuban oil drilling in the Florida Straights are ripe for negotiation. She and others agree that improved relations with Cuba would help refurbish the U.S. image in Latin America. And U.S. travel to the island, she claims, would relieve “the kind of siege mentality that has entrapped the Cuban body politic.”

Another survey of Washington’s Cuba problem published last month is remarkable for its strategic depth. U.S. Army War College faculty member Col. Alex Crowther argues now is the time to “kiss the embargo good-bye.” He considers history, U.S. interests and resource availability. (See www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil.) Crowther’s stretching of the truth and oversimplifications suggest bias toward former usefulness of the blockade as a cold-war tool.

Arguments favoring continued blockade would be: “We need to continue pressuring the regime to motivate it to reform, and the Cuban community in Miami wants us to continue.” He points out — probably in sadness — that one didn’t work and the other is no longer true.

Blockade, he suggests, no longer serves U.S. interests. Its departure would signify to world opinion that “the United States is magnanimous and inclusive,” not “petty and vindictive” as is the appearance now. For Crowther, the blockade provides Cuba with a propaganda tool; its removal would take away Cuba’s last pretext for repression. (Millions flowing from Washington for internal subversion are overlooked.) Cuba, he adds, would develop into a lucrative export market. And ending the blockade would ease human suffering in Cuba, presumably less acceptable now than during the cold war, when destabilization took top billing.

President Obama may announce easing of Bush restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances sometime prior to his attending the next Summit of the Americas, set for Trinidad and Tobago in mid-April. Surely he is aiming for a smoother experience there than that of President Bush at the last summit, in Argentina in 2005. The former president retreated in embarrassment after his Free Trade Area of the Americas flopped.