HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 3 — The United States midterm elections are currently being interpreted in innumerable ways by journalists around the world. While the overall implications of the results and the portent for the 2012 presidential race can be little more than conjecture at this point, the effects on efforts to restore the right of US citizens to travel to Cuba are fairly cut and dry.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will now head the House Committee on Foreign Affairs effectively preventing any legislation that would remotely improve US-Cuba relations from ever making it out of her committee. Current chairman Berman’s fear of this eventuality, coupled with a maximum-allowed campaign contribution from an anti-travel PAC, caused him to exert his jurisdiction over this year’s travel bill, lull his fellow Democrats into thinking he would call it up for a vote, and ultimately stall out the clock.
The big Republican gains in the Senate do not necessarily change the dynamic of that chamber. Before the midterm elections, the pro-Cuba travel camp was not filibuster-proof. That is, there were not 60 votes to override a filibuster by Senator Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat of Cuban decent. Although Senator Dorgan boasted to have the votes needed to lift the travel ban, he took no steps to prove his claim making them doubtful. While it is theoretically easier to overcome a one-man filibuster through wheeling and dealing than it is to persuade a handful of opponents, when the loner holding up the show is motivated by personal vendetta and ideology, like Menendez, that theory breaks down. So, the Senate was an obstacle before elections and will remain so.
Executive authority is what’s left
Therefore, with the Congress solidly stacked against any reform in US-Cuba policy, the only hope for change left is President Obama. But, the argument for Obama using executive authority to update Cuba policy was based on his winning Florida in 2008, which suggested that he need not worry so much about the Cuban-American vote in 2012. That thesis was strengthened by several polls in South Florida showing that most Cuban-Americans favor open travel for all Americans and better relations with Cuba in general.
But that breathing room has just crucially contracted. The House race in Florida’s 25th District won by David Rivera, a hardliner who thinks that even Cuban-Americans should not be allowed to travel to Cuba to visit their family, over Joe Garcia, once director of the extreme anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation but now representing the more rational side of the émigré community that is open to exploring rapprochement, deprived Obama of political cover for such policies and cast shadows on the 2012 election.
Granted, the Florida race was not decided solely based on the candidates’ Cuba stance. The general backlash occurring against Democrats, of course, had an effect on the race in a long-time republican district.
In reality, the fact that Garcia had a chance at all was probably due to his more reasonable tenor on Cuba. But, it remains to be seen if the administration will bother to tease out the details and continue forward toward healing relations with Cuba or if Obama, joined by the 200+ pro-travel Congress Members, will shrug their shoulders saying “we tried” and allow the hard-line Cuban Americans in Congress to frame this defeat within their Cold War narrative, thereby halting all progress.