For nearly two years, President Barack Obama had an opportunity to work with a reasonably friendly Congress on issues of importance relating to Cuba and, more broadly, to Latin America.
Obama, who, as presidential candidate, offered at times to sit down with President Raúl Castro, has made more modest modifications to the policy since taking office. Because of Obama, Cuban Americans now have the unrestricted right to visit Cuba as often as they wish and to provide unlimited financial support to their kin on the island. They are doing so with gusto.
Diplomatic contacts with Cuba’s government are better and more frequent than during the Bush administration; migration talks have resumed, direct mail service has been discussed, diplomatic pull-asides take place on subjects ranging from cooperation in Haiti to the fate of jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross. The tempo and frequency of cultural exchanges are up, visas are up, and cooperation has taken place on matters like the BP oil spill. All of this is to the good.
Writing just four days from a national election, it is still hard not to think that President Obama may have missed his moment – missed his opportunity to transform this relationship in a meaningful way.
While the Cubans decry linkage, Obama observes it. As we have discussed before, he has tied loosening the restrictiveness of the policy to Cuba making progress on political and economic reform. He remained silent as two House Committees worked hard to repeal the ban on travel to Cuba and boost food sales to the island. And, he reacts to the release of more than forty political prisoners, sweeping state layoffs, and affirmative steps to increase economic activity in Cuba’s private sector with a skeptical glance.
Count him unpersuaded. He is unwilling, apparently, at this stage to move forward to loosen travel rules – under the authority delegated to him by Congress – as administration sources promised he would do. Why? He says he hasn’t seen the full effects of what Cuba is undertaking.
Maybe he will see the full effects of the reforms after Election Day. What he will almost certainly see, however, is a dramatic change in the balance of political power in the U.S. Congress.
Josh Rogin, writing on-line for Foreign Policy, profiles ten Members of the House and Senate who he believes will speak with louder, more influential voices in the 112th Congress on matters relating to defense, foreign policy, foreign aid, and U.S. relations with regions like Latin America and countries like Cuba.
To put it kindly, they are skeptics – skeptics of nuclear arms control, immigration reform, funding for the United Nations, development assistance, and, of course, engaging with Cuba or allowing more Americans to travel there.
Rogin says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is poised to take over as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee if her party wins control of the House, is “likely to scuttle the drive to ease sanctions and travel restrictions on Cuba,” although she will presumably not interrupt her own constituents’ plans to visit their families or to invest in their small enterprises.
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and her allies on the Appropriations Committee will be able to do far more than that, if they want to bar spending for other Cuba reforms, undertaken by the Executive Branch, and we can’t predict the administration’s willingness to challenge their ability to do so.
The President can be the vital center of action in our system, and we hope he chooses to occupy that space in addressing the unfinished business of Cuba policy reform. He’s made progress, but he hasn’t really made Cuba policy a priority in the first half of his term. If the crowds in Congress are marching in the wrong direction, we’re eager to see him go the other way. It will make not just for a good contrast, but a much better policy, very much in America’s national interest.
Before the deluge in the U.S. midterms, there was a pounding on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly, as the U.S. embargo won global condemnation for the 19th year in a row. News of that pounding and news for the family of Alan Gross headline this edition of your weekly news summary. Read the rest of this entry »