Where's the Momentum?

Friday, June 19, 2009
From the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA):

Momentum for Changing U.S. Policy Toward Cuba Subject to Interpretation

While a National Foreign Trade Council official said June 17 that momentum is growing in Congress for U.S. policy change toward Cuba, an official with a Cuban democracy advocacy group said that lawmakers currently advocating policy change in the 111th Congress have done so before and failed.

Jake Colvin, NFTC vice president of global affairs, and Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., made their remarks at a forum organized by the Washington International Trade Association.

Colvin said that there is increasing interest in Congress in normalizing relations with Cuba. President Obama, he noted, has said that U.S. policy with respect to Cuba has failed.

Also, currently, nearly 70 percent of Cubans living in the United States support the removal of all U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba. This marks a "huge change" from two years ago, he said.

Cuba has been under U.S. economic embargo for over 45 years. The Obama administration April 13 announced a series of steps aimed at relaxing certain restrictions on U.S. travel to and business dealings with Cuba, including authorizing the donation of certain consumer telecommunication devices without a license from the Commerce Department and restoring items such as clothing and personal hygiene products to the list of items that can be included in gift parcel donations (69 DER AA-1, 4/14/09).

"In the short-term we're likely to see a lot more engagement and interaction between the United States and Cuba," he said. Colvin speculated that the Obama administration will focus on implementing regulations for the changes it has already announced before undertaking other reforms.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama promised to loosen restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. However, he also said that the trade embargo should be maintained as leverage to encourage Cuba to make democratic changes.

Colvin argued that—contrary to some opinions—the president is empowered to make changes to the Cuba embargo. "For those of us who want to see policy change, the wind is at our back for the first time in a long time," he said.

John Veroneau, former deputy U.S. trade representative now with Covington and Burling, commented that the current administration has more "policy space" than prior administrations to make changes to Cuba policy. He said it remains to be seen how much of that policy space Obama will use.

Same Lawmakers Back Legislation

Claver-Carone said that U.S. lawmakers pushing policy change with Cuba in the 111th Congress are the "same members with the same interests" as have supported such changes in the past.

Several bills loosening sanctions have been introduced in the 111th Congress. Among them, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), joined by 15 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, May 20 introduced a measure to ease trade and all travel restrictions on Cuba, including Treasury Department rules that made it harder for Cuba to purchase U.S. agricultural products (96 DER A-6, 5/21/09).

Normalizing relations with Cuba's dictatorship—now led by Raul Castro—would open a Pandora's box, Claver-Carone said, noting that Cuba is one of only a handful of totalitarian states remaining.

"Cuba is not China and it is not Vietnam," he remarked. A totalitarian regime strives to control all aspects of a citizen's life, he said.

Consistent with U.S. law, Obama has made it clear that the embargo will not be lifted until Cuba makes a democratic transition, Claver-Carone said.

Three conditions are necessary before the embargo is lifted: the unconditional release of all political prisoners; the respect and recognition of universally recognized human rights; and recognition of the opposition party, he said.