Campaign to Change U.S. Policy on Cuba May Face Hurdles After Midterm Election

October 27, 2010 - 4:39 AM

Cuba embargo

Delegates line up to congratulate Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 after the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution calling for an end to the U.S. economic embargo on his country. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

( – Tuesday’s U.N. General Assembly vote condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba serves as a reminder that those advocating an end to the policy introduced in 1962 can expect to face a tougher battle after next week’s congressional elections.

In what has become a ritual over the past two decades, the non-binding resolution calling on Washington to “repeal and invalidate” the embargo against the communist-ruled island passed by an overwhelming majority.

The United States and Israel alone voted no, as they have every year since the resolution was first submitted in 1992. Several small Pacific island nations occasionally have joined them. (Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau abstained this year.)

“The U.S. policy against Cuba is devoid of any ethical or legal grounds and lacks credibility and support,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla told the General Assembly.

Venezuelan envoy Jorge Valero said the U.S., by keeping the embargo in place, was demonstrating its contempt for the will of the General Assembly. Nonetheless, the “imperialists” would not subdue the “patriotic spirit” of the Cuban people, he added

As in past years, the Cuban government and media hailed the lopsided result as yet another victory against what the state-run Prensa Latina news agency described as an isolated U.S.

Despite the expressions of triumph in Havana, however, the final decision on ending the embargo lies not at the U.N. – or indeed in the Oval Office – but on Capitol Hill.

Cuba U.N. vote

By a vote of 187-2, with three abstentions, the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 passed a resolution calling for an end to the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Under a 1996 law that strengthened the embargo, ending the policy requires the president to notify Congress that a democratically elected, or transitional, government is in power in Cuba.

And that law, commonly called the Helms-Burton Act after the original sponsors, Republican Sens. Jesse Helms and Dan Burton, contains strict stipulations as to what constitutes such a transitional or democratic government.

These include the legalization of all political activity in preparation for elections, which must be held within 18 months of a transitional government assuming power. Specifically ruled out is any government that includes either Fidel Castro or his brother Raul, the incumbent president.

Helms-Burton requirements for determining a democratically elected government include  independently monitored, free and fair elections, respect for citizens’ civil liberties and human rights, and “demonstrable progress in establishing an independent judiciary.”

As a Senate candidate in 2003, Barack Obama supported lifting the embargo, and said while campaigning for the presidency that it should be eased in stages.

After taking office President Obama announced some policy changes, loosening restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling and transferring money to Cuba.

Further measures reportedly under consideration include an expansion of categories of permitted travel to Cuba.

Meanwhile business groups have been lobbying hard for Congress to act to change policy that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calls an “anachronism.”

Late last month, a bill ending travel restrictions to Cuba, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (H.R. 4645), stalled in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
With the campaign recess looming, committee chairman Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said he was postponing the mark-up “until a time when the committee will be able to hold the robust and uninterrupted debate this important issue deserves.” Observers said he was clearly not confident of having the required number of votes.

Berman supports the legislation, unlike ranking minority member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who stands ready to assume the helm if the Republican Party wins control of the House.

The Florida Republican, who was born in Havana seven years before Castro seized power, is a leading critic of the regime, and opposes the lifting of sanctions and travel restrictions.

Political divide

Beyond the Foreign Affairs Committee, a GOP majority in the House would likely see a broader shift towards a firmer stance against Cuba. Although some Republicans have given ground on the embargo in recent years, opposition to ending it remains significant.

The Latin America Working Group, an advocacy coalition whose issues include lifting restrictions on Cuba, rated lawmakers ahead of the 2008 election. Just one Republican – Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming – scored above 50 points out of a possible 100.

Cuba political prisoner

Former Cuban political prisoner Rolando Jimenez Pozada arrives in Prague, where he and his family have been granted asylum. Pozada spent seven years in a Cuban prison for criticizing the political situation in Cuba. Czech Interior Minister Radek John, left, looks on. (AP Photo/CTK/Roman Vondrous)

A political divide was evident again last year, when bills were introduced in the House and Senate seeking to prevent the president from restricting travel to and from Cuba.

Of 179 co-sponsors for the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (H.R. 874) in the House of Representatives, only 12 were Republicans. The Senate version (S. 428) was co-sponsored by 39 lawmakers, five of them Republicans.

This year’s H.R. 4645 bill attracted 10 Republicans out of a total 81 co-sponsors.

Maintaining restrictions on the Castro regime has long been a defining political issue in Florida, home to the country’s largest Cuban-American community.

Of 20 Florida representatives in the U.S. House ranked by the Latin America Working Group in 2008, 18 received a score of zero. Only Democratic Reps. Kendrik Meek and Alcee Hastings fared better, receiving 25 out of a possible 100.

All three candidates running to fill Florida’s Senate seat vacated by Cuban-born Republican Mel Martinez – Republican Marco Rubio, independent Gov. Charlie Crist, and Democrat Meek – say they support the embargo, although Crist held a fundraiser over the summer with advocates who favor ending sanctions, and the Rubio campaign has accused him of softening his stance.

Florida’s senior senator, Sen. Bill Nelson (D), is a member of the congressional Cuba Democracy Caucus.

In the state’s closely-fought gubernatorial race, both of the candidates running to succeed Crist, Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink, say they oppose lifting the restrictions in Cuba.

Last August, amid reports that the administration would soon announce expanding categories of travel allowed to Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen joined fellow Florida Republicans Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and New Jersey Democrats Albio Sires and Robert Menendez in writing to Obama, highlighting statutory restrictions in U.S. law.

“We believe the laws pertaining to U.S.-Cuba policy are clear, providing a concise roadmap of both permissible and prohibited transactions aimed at protecting and advancing U.S. interests,” they said.

“Changes such as those being reported in the media would undermine those priorities, could run contrary to U.S. statute, and would play directly into the hands of the Cuban tyranny.”

Some advocates of easing the restrictions point to Havana’s release of some political prisoners and recently-announced small-scale free market reforms.

Cuba has this year freed dozens of political prisoners, forcing them into exile as a condition of release. Scores more remain in custody, according to human rights groups.