By Circles Robinson
HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 18 – The battle over Cuba policy opens a new chapter on Thursday morning at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that before it begins has brought out the heavyweights on both sides of the fence.
The issue of the day is whether to continue the travel ban that prohibits US citizens from visiting the neighboring country but the stakes are considerably higher.
If the travel ban were to fall some observers believe it would lead to a domino effect that could topple the nearly half-century US economic blockade of Cuba.
For that reason and other behind the scenes issues -including influence buying from the powerful Miami-based hardliner exile groups- a flurry of media action started the week.
First a bi-partisan, open letter co-authored by Republican Senator Richard G. Lugar (ranking member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee) and Democratic Rep Howard L. Berman (chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee) appeared in the Miami Herald on Tuesday.
The letter from Sen. Lugar and Rep. Berman supports a change in course after 50-years of official estrangement of the US from Cuba:
“U.S. law lets American citizens travel to any country on earth, friend or foe — with one exception: Cuba. It’s time for us to scrap this anachronistic ban, imposed during one of the chilliest periods of the Cold War.
“Legislation to abolish restrictions on travel to Cuba has been introduced in both chambers of Congress. And on Thursday the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing examining the rationale for the travel ban.
“This ban has prevented contact between Cubans and ordinary Americans, who serve as ambassadors for the democratic values we hold dear. Such contact would help break Havana’s chokehold on information about the outside world. And it would contribute to improving the image of the United States, particularly in Latin America, where the U.S. embargo on Cuba remains a centerpiece of anti-Washington grievances.
“While opponents argue that repealing the travel ban would indicate approval of the Cuban human rights record, many human rights organizations — among them Freedom House and Human Rights Watch — have called for abolishing travel restrictions…”
“There is no doubt that Raúl Castro’s government continues to ban most political activity not controlled by the Cuban Communist Party. Opposition parties are illegal, virtually all media remain state controlled, and Cuba has the highest number of political prisoners of any country in the Americas. But isolation from outside visitors only strengthens the Castro regime.
“U.S. travelers’ dollars, furthermore, could aid the underground economy and the small self-employed sector permitted by the state, strengthening an important foundation of independence from Cuba’s authoritarian system.
“Travel ban defenders view sanctions as leverage over the Cuban government and their abolition as a concession. But over the last five decades, it has become clear that isolation will not induce the Castro regime to take steps toward political liberalization. Conditionality is not leverage in this case.
“Our current approach has made any policy changes contingent on Havana, not U.S. interests, and it has left Washington an isolated bystander, watching events on the island unfold at a distance.
“Finally, while travel restrictions are contrary to our foreign policy interests, they also impede the right of Americans to freedom of speech, association and to travel. Sometimes a travel ban may be necessary, but nothing about the Cuba situation today justifies such an infringement on our basic liberties.
“The Obama administration has already made a move in the right direction by lifting restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans and opening the way for greater telecommunications links with the island.
“It is now time for the Congress to take the next step for all Americans,” concluded Lugar and Berman.
Two of the most outspoken representatives in favor of ending the decades old prohibition are on the 47-member House Foreign Affairs Committee: Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona, as well as Democrat Barbara Lee of California who recently met in Havana with President Raul Castro.
Back in February, only two weeks after Barack Obama took office, Rep. Delahunt introduced legislation (HR 874) that would lift the travel ban on US citizens wanting to visit Cuba. Today it is still sitting in the Foreign Affairs Committee. The bill now has 180 co-sponsors. Similar legislation was also put forth in the Senate.
IRI Paints Picture of Discontent
Also on Tuesday, the International Republican Institute (IRI), a US government funded organization chaired by former Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain, issued the findings of its survey conducted from July 1 to August 4. The poll shows a high level of discontent among the Cuban population with the direction of events in their country.
The timing of the report’s release seemed to be geared to support those congress people led by Florida reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who support maintaining the status quo on Cuba policy, including the travel ban on ordinary US citizens. Ros-Lehtinen is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Over the years, these representatives have mainly cited human rights concerns, lack of freedoms and the fact that Cuba confiscated properties belonging to US companies a half century ago as justification for maintaining a hostile policy to force regime change on the island.
The position of Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart to thwart relations between people in the US and Cuba and to maintain the blockade was repudiated by a full United Nations vote of 187 countries to 3 on October 28, approving a Cuban resolution that urged the US to end the stranglehold on the island which has kept Cuba from reaching anywhere near its full potential.
After interviewing 432 persons in 12 Cuban provinces, IRI concluded that, “two-thirds of Cubans do not believe that their government will succeed in solving Cuba’s most pressing challenges.” It added: “The data reveals Cubans’ strong dissatisfaction towards its leadership and their indisputable preferences for political and economic change,” said Lorne Craner, president of IRI in a press release.
The survey found that “Cuban citizens continue to be more likely to name economic issues among their greatest concerns, with more than one-half of Cubans (52 percent) citing worries about low salaries, high cost of living and challenges with the island’s double-currency system. One in five Cubans cited food scarcity as their biggest concern.
In terms of property rights, more than nine-out-of-ten Cubans (91 percent) support the ability to freely purchase and sell their homes, a right that is not currently afforded to them.
IRI also notes that “Overall the number of Cubans who make cell-phone calls increased ten percent since November 2008, while the number of Cubans sending and receiving e-mail grew by 23 percent over the same time period.”
Havana Times will bring you a full report on the hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill.