By KAREN BRANCH-BRIOSO The Tampa Tribune
Published: Apr 8, 2007
TAMPA - Cuba's leadership changed. Control of Congress changed.
As a result, many say now is a politically plausible moment for change in U.S.-Cuba policy.
No one expects an end to the embargo, but many say recent events - an ailing Fidel Castro's transfer of power to his brother, Raul, and Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress for the first time in a dozen years - may lead to a sanding down of the edges of Cuba sanctions.
William LeoGrande of American University, an author of two books on U.S.-Cuba policy, predicts Democrats will move three proposals:
•Removing red tape on sales of farm goods to Cuba
•Allowing Cuban-Americans to freely visit and send money to family in Cuba
•Lifting restrictions on U.S. resident travel to Cuba that ban tourist visits and require licenses for other types of travel.
"If they can get their way through the legislative process," LeoGrande said, "then it becomes a test of wills between the Congress and the president."
President Bush has threatened to veto any effort to relax Cuba policy, so few expect sweeping change while he's in office.
"I think the fights will stay on the periphery," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, one of six Cuban-Americans in Congress and a lead backer of tough sanctions. "There's no real debate unless there's someone in the White House that wants to bail out the regime. That can't happen until January 2009, and that's an eternity."
It's one point where Diaz-Balart and Dagoberto Rodriguez Barrera, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, coincide.
"We can't forget that the White House continues to be run by the same party and the same president, who in the past has been quite clear that he opposes any change in policy toward Cuba," Rodriguez Barrera said. "So I don't really see a possibility for substantial change in Cuba policy during this administration."
Translation: An end to the embargo, in place since the early '60s? Nope.
A total erasure of travel restrictions? Not likely.
Atop a list of possibilities for tweaks in Cuba policy are two proposals. One would allow Cuban-Americans unlimited visits and money transfers to family in Cuba, turning back Bush's tightening of restrictions in 2004 and prior restrictions.
Another would make selling U.S. farm goods to Cuba easier. It would expand an exception to the embargo passed by a GOP-run Congress in 2000, when Bill Clinton was president.
Trade With Cuba Continues
Last year, Florida exported $36 million in goods to Cuba, ranking third among U.S. states in such sales, the Commerce Department reports. Only Louisiana and Texas sold more.
Florida Produce of Hillsborough County, the first business in the state to ship agricultural goods to Cuba after the law passed, has sold products ranging from onions to chicken parts to pears since then. This month, owner Mike Mauricio expects to ship two containers: one of evaporated milk; another filled with nuts for a Havana chocolate factory.
Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., wants to ease regulations on such shipments, which Cuba must buy with cash upfront, routed through third-country banks to the United States. The Bush administration interprets that as requiring cash in the bank before shipments can leave U.S. ports.
Moran would specify the cash simply be received before the Cuban government takes possession of goods - and allow U.S. banks to accept direct payments.
"This would ease a lot of problems," Mauricio said, noting that Cuba forwards cash for his shipments through the National Bank of Paris.
"There are so many restrictions and so many eyeballs on top of us, you've got to make sure your paperwork on all your documents for exportation are just right."
Diaz-Balart expects he'll have a harder time persuading colleagues to oppose a bill to increase agricultural sales. Moran, a farm-state Republican, and others like him are expected to join many Democrats to support such a plan.
"There, I would say, we don't have the votes," Diaz-Balart said.
He feels stronger about efforts to maintain travel restrictions. Others feel differently.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., long has tried to lift the embargo and travel restrictions to Cuba. This time, he's doing it as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. His bill to lift restrictions on all U.S. residents' travel to Cuba has 89 co-sponsors.
Even some who support it, however, doubt the survivability of such changes.
"Whether or not those issues can survive a presidential veto is an open question," said John Murphy, vice president of international affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports expanded sales to Cuba. "Because of that, I think half-steps might be the most likely way forward."
Half-steps include one pushed by Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. He is sponsoring a bill to lift travel restrictions for only Cuban-Americans visiting their family on the island - because he thinks it's doable.
"I'm not hiding my own belief that we should reconfigure the entire relationship, but this is a proposal that really has implications far beyond the bilateral government-to-government relationships," Delahunt said. "There's a moral issue here, and that's dividing families. And I think most Americans understand that, no matter how they feel about Cuba."
Diaz-Balart counters that Cuban-Americans, who receive a fast-track to residency because they're seeking political asylum, shouldn't be able to travel freely to the country they fled.
"There are plenty of good people from Mexico and Colombia and Costa Rica who every day I talk to who want to stay, and they can't stay," Diaz-Balart said. "Cubans … are coming from a communist totalitarian dictatorship - and if you're treated by U.S. law as an asylee, you have to be cognizant of that."
Polls show Cuban-Americans divided on the issue. A Florida International University poll of 1,000 Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade in March found that 55 percent support unrestricted travel to Cuba. Also, 64 percent would like to roll back tighter restrictions imposed in 2004 by the Bush administration on Cuban-Americans' visits and money transfers to family in Cuba.
Before that, Cuban-Americans could visit family, from immediate relatives to aunts, uncles and cousins, once a year. The 2004 changes limited travel to once every three years - and to only immediate relatives. Delahunt's bill would lift all restrictions on Cuban-American travel and money transfers to family in Cuba.
Attitudes Toward Change
It likely would take an even narrower change in policy to clear the Senate. Florida Sen. Mel Martinez is the chamber's only Cuban-American Republican. He opposes "all openings with a dictatorship until there are conditions in place to support the right of the Cuban people to live in freedom."
As the chamber's only Cuban-American Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey likely would hold more sway on such legislation. He publicly criticized Bush's 2004 changes strictly limiting Cuban-American visits, saying that punished families.
He is not expected, however, to support a plan - as Delahunt's is written - calling for unrestricted visits and unlimited money transfers from Cuban-American family members. Current policy allows Cuban-Americans to wire $300 per quarter to a family member's household in Cuba.
The divisions in the community often depend on how recently the person left Cuba.
A Bendixen & Associates poll of 600 Cuban-Americans in South Florida in September found 55 percent who have arrived since 1980 oppose the tighter restrictions, while 63 percent of those arriving before 1980 favor them.
"If you look at that poll, you'll find right now the majority of voters tend to be older and against it, but when you look at the young people, it takes off after 1980," said Joe Garcia, director of the Hispanic Strategy Center for the New Democratic Network, an advocacy group that commissioned the poll.
"I'm one of the cardinals of the church of the embargo, but I do know I have an obligation to my congregation - and it is not going to get rid of Castro. We need to find ways to change Cuba. And nobody has a more profound effect when they go to Cuba than Cuban-Americans."
Reporter Karen Branch-Brioso can be reached at (813) 259-7815 or at kbranch-brioso@tampatrib .com. Keyword: Cuba Politics, to hear an interview with Cuban Interests Section Chief Dagoberto Rodriguez Barrera. Busqueda: Politica en Cuba, Lea la historia y escuche el audio sobre los cambios en la Política hacia Cuba en CENTROtampa .com.