HAVANA TIMES, August 10 (IPS) – The new round of immigration talks between the US and Cuba that began recently could mark a point of relaxation in this old, bitter and tense dispute, possibly extending the horizons that the new White House administration is proposing.
In April, US President Barack Obama authorized travel and money transfers to Cuba on the part of Cuban-Americans. Soon after, the State Department acknowledged that representatives of the two countries had begun unofficial discussions in an attempt to reinitiate dialogue.
In May, a US official said Cuban authorities had “demonstrated they would like to explore other areas of dialogue,” such as in combating drug trafficking, the war on terrorism, and training to respond to hurricanes and other catastrophes.
The Obama administration also maintained the suspension of enforcement of Title III, one aspect of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which would allow legal action against firms that trade with Cuban companies involved with formerly American-owned properties nationalized following the Cuban Revolution. [These include firms that sell food products to Cuba under special licensing.]
Nevertheless, Republican legislators from Florida, assuming their traditional confrontational posture of challenging any change in the relationship between the United States and Cuba, lashed out against the renewal of migratory talks.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the Cuban regime has not fulfilled previous accords pertaining to that issue. “It’s really a shame that once again the United States government is rewarding the regime in Cuba with an opening, despite the cruelties that are committed against the Cuban people and its policy of undermining the interests and priorities of the United States,” she said.
In this same vein, Senator Mel Martínez requested the federal government to “force firm commitments” from Cuba. After pointing out that Bush suspended talks “due to the Cuban government’s non-compliance,” Martínez [who just announced his immediate retirement from the Senate] said the Obama administration should demand Havana fulfill its obligations, especially by allowing American authorities to verify the status of Cubans returned to the island after being detained [by the US Coast Guard] in their attempt to reach the Florida coast.
Thrust for Policy Change Mounts
However, pressures are increasing from different quarters to put an end to the Cuba trade and travel restrictions against US firms and citizens.
A survey conducted by the World Public Opinion company revealed that 70 percent of Americans – including 62 percent of those who identified themselves as Republicans – want to put an end to restrictions on travel to Cuba.
Likewise, most Cuban-American are now in favor of putting an end to the prohibitions on trips, as well as normalizing relations, indicated an international publication.
Congressional Representative Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, who participated in a delegation of the Black Caucus that traveled to the island in March of this year and met with former President Fidel Castro, has introduced the Commercial Normalization Act between the United States and Cuba. If passed, this legislation would revoke the Helms-Burton and Torricelli acts and would put an end to the embargo; the bill currently has 55 co-sponsors.
The Congressional fight to end the travel ban is the main battlefield in the dispute for the normalization of relations, agree most specialists on the issue.
Moving in that direction, growing support is projected for the “Freedom to Travel Act” (HR 874), which has bipartisan support from 160 co-sponsors in the two houses. Another bill (S 428) has 29 co-sponsors in the Senate.
“To punish the American people in our effort to somehow to strike a blow against Castro’s government has not made any sense,” pointed out Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota. Byron is a sponsor of the bill of the Senate. “Finally, this policy – in place for 50 years and which has not worked – will be eliminated,” he added.
Best Chance in Decades
“This is the best opportunity in decades to put an end to the prohibition on travel,” said Marilyn McKenna, education coordinator of the Religious Leadership Network of Chicago, one of the groups that lead this battle. “It’s a very important moment for all of us to compel our elected officials to sign HR 874 and S 428. It would be very good to meet with them during the August recess,” she pointed out.
Intense opposition to this push is being organized by the United States-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, an important right wing group that has financially backed candidates who support the blockade and that has threatened to frustrate the efforts of those against it.
A suit was filed in Federal Court on July 16 challenging the constitutionality of the travel restrictions, including the imposition of fines on travelers who fill out questionnaires when they return. The case was filed on behalf of Brooklyn (New York) resident Zachary Sanders by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which contends that requirements to fill out such forms constitute self-incrimination and are in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
In addition, 140 US citizens who just traveled to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade on its 40th anniversary of organizing visits to the island sent a letter to President Obama; they expressed their determination to engage in civil disobedience by challenging the travel restrictions when they returned to their country on August 3. The organization, which annually sends groups to the island to work on construction projects, urged Obama to put an end to the blockade.
“We travel to Cuba to denounce the failure and the inhumanity of our country’s policy toward Cuba and to express our solidarity with the Cuban people in their struggle. We are aware that we face consequences for our acts of civil disobedience, but we are strengthened by the conviction of Martin Luther King Jr., who recognized that one has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” read the group’s letter.
Likewise, the 20th Friendship Caravan of the Pastors for Peace this year brought 100 tons of medical supplies, tools and construction equipment to Cuba. At each stop during their trip across the US, caravan participants appealed to people to call President Obama and Congress and urge them to put an end to the embargo and demand freedom for the Cuban Five, unjustly imprisoned in the US for more than 10 years.
Shortly before Obama took office, a coalition of US business groups – including the American Society of Travel Agents and the Business Roundtable of the United States Chamber of Commerce – wrote a letter in which they pointed out: “We support the complete elimination of all trade and travel restrictions against Cuba. We recognize that this change will not take place in one instant, but it should begin somehow, and soon.”
Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana, representing agricultural interests, introduced a bill to promote agricultural and medical exports to Cuba. While this legislation has 16 co-sponsors, another bill (HR 1531) presented in the House of Representatives by Congress member Charles Rangel, D-New York, has 27 co-sponsors.
Cuban authorities remain aware of this movement in the heart of American society, believing that it is from within that country where a change of attitude can be made to put an end to the years of hostility.
Obama: Honest but Little Concrete
However, these are signs of the change for embarking on a long road of reconciliation over countless obstacles and unpredictable situations on both sides, underlined a Cuban specialist on the issue who requested anonymity.
High government officials on the island, even when describing President Obama as honest, share the opinion that up to now he has not shown a firm sign of his intention to reverse the old policy of using the stick – and not the carrot – against Cuba.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez says the US blockade against Cuba remains intact “in political terms as much as in practical ones.” He noted this when speaking at one of the parliamentary commissions held in the Havana Convention Center at the end of July.
In 2008, the US blockade resulted in losses to the Caribbean country estimated at $3 billion dollars.
A Havana Times translation of the original IPS article in Spanish