The Miami Herald
Thu, Dec. 14, 2006
BY PABLO BACHELET
WASHINGTON - The Democrats' capture of Congress and Cuban leader Fidel Castro's illness have dramatically altered the battle lines over Cuba policy and given new hope to opponents of U.S. sanctions, analysts say.
A congressional delegation heading to Cuba today has drawn brisk interest from lawmakers and their staffs, and critics of the sanctions say that shows the legislative branch is keen on taking another look at Cuba.
''There's a reenergizing of the base of people who want to work to change this policy,'' said Mavis Anderson, head of the Cuba program for the Latin America Working Group, a left-leaning advocacy organization based in Washington. ``Outside of Congress, certainly people are excited that there may be some new openings. Inside the Congress, I think that will come.''
In recent years, President Bush has cut back everything from U.S. travel to bank transfers and gift packages to the island, meeting little resistance in a Republican-controlled Congress.
But now the ailing Castro is largely viewed as unlikely to return to power. Democrats, traditionally less inclined to back the sanctions against Cuba, are set to control Congress. Bush is looking more like a lame-duck leader and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is leaving office in January.
Adding to that perfect-storm scenario, a report by the watchdog Government Accountability Office last month questioned the efficiency of U.S. democracy programs to support dissidents on the island, giving more fuel to foes who argue that a change in policy is overdue.
''If you're a hard-liner on policy toward Cuba, things are not looking very good for you,'' said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a centrist nonpartisan group based in Miami and Washington.
Congressional interest in Cuba is growing as the island continues to chart its course in the post-Fidel Castro era.
Six Democrats and four Republicans have signed up for the trip to Havana organized by the House International Relations Committee. The visit, the first since Castro fell ill in July, was an initiative of Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, a vocal supporter of more U.S. engagement with Cuba.
According to organizers, the congressional delegation has confirmed meetings with Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, and may meet with interim leader Raúl Castro.
Few observers expect Congress to end the trade embargo on Cuba anytime soon.
But opponents are expected to challenge key portions of the Cuba policy, including funding levels for the South Florida-based Radio and TV Martí and the travel restrictions. Observers say the 2004 tightening of the travel restrictions -- Cuban Americans now can only go to the island once every three years instead of annually -- is especially vulnerable.
Several Democrats skeptical of Bush's Cuba policies will chair committees that will give them a platform on Cuba matters, including New York Rep. Charles Rangel on the Ways and Means Committee, Michigan Rep. John Conyers on the House Judiciary Committee and Wisconsin Rep. David Obey on the House Appropriations Committee.
On the Senate side, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden is to head the Foreign Relations Committee and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who once held up Treasury Department nominations to protest restrictions on U.S. trade with Cuba, will chair the Finance Committee, according to a tally kept by Anderson's group.
''Obstructionists have been moved out of leadership in the Congress,'' the group said in a Nov. 28 e-mail to fellow activists. ``We have reason to be optimistic.''
But Cuba bills still need to pass the floor of both chambers, where supporters of the embargo believe members will be reluctant to change a Cuba policy when Havana may be on the eve of a historic shift because of Castro's illness.
''I am fully confident that, despite our reversals in Congress, U.S. sanctions will be kept on the Cuban dictatorship until a democratic transition is genuinely under way,'' said Miami Republican Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, one of the staunchest defenders of Bush policies on Cuba. ``We have bipartisan solid support for Cuba's freedom in Congress, and George W. Bush is still president.''
The Latin America Working Group counts 182 representatives from both parties as firmly in the camp of favoring a change in Cuba policy, well short of the 218 needed to pass bills.
The big uncertainty is the 50-plus-member freshman class, dominated by Democrats. But congressional votes on Cuba tend to be muddy, as farm-state Republicans often vote for more trade with Cuba, while many Democrats join Republican colleagues in keeping the restrictions on Havana.
The previous freshman class voted overwhelmingly against easing Cuba sanctions, and Albio Sires, a Cuban-American New Jersey Democrat just elected to the House, is expected to lobby against rolling back Cuba sanctions. The office of Díaz-Balart has already begun reaching out to the freshman class with literature and invitations to briefings on Cuba-related issues, a staff member said.
On the Senate side, congressional aides say, Democratic Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada opposes easing sanctions, as do other key members such as Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
So far, Democrats are not rushing to change the Cuba policy.
Rangel, on the Ways and Means Committee, remains committed to overturning the embargo, but his aides say he will move legislation only if a majority of the committee wants it. Rangel also said that he did not join the congressional delegation to Cuba because ''no matter how well-intended the trip is, it would seem as if we were surveying the grounds'' for a post-Fidel Castro Cuba.
Then there's the 2008 presidential elections, in which Democrats may be reluctant to anger Cuban-American voters in Florida by relaxing Cuba sanctions.
''The Cuba policy is based on the dream of both parties to capture the Cuban vote in Miami,'' said New York Democratic Rep. José Serrano, a firm proponent of more engagement with Havana.