We believe victory is at hand.
As we prepared to publish this week’s news summary, we awaited final word that the House and Senate have, in fact, sent end-o- the-year budget legislation to the White House after removing restrictions on family travel.
Pushing up against a Friday deadline and a possible government shutdown, Congress is apparently ready to send the White House legislation to fund the federal government for 2012 without the proposal by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart that restored punishing Bush-era travel restrictions on Cuban Americans.
How did it happen that cruel limits on family travel, adopted without a dissenting vote last June in the House Appropriations Committee, got dropped at the 11th hour from this $1 trillion bill?
Here’s what we have learned from news accounts and Congressional sources so far.
The White House stood firm. President Obama repealed travel restrictions on Cuban Americans in 2009, and he never abandoned the policy. After the Díaz-Balart amendment was adopted, the White House issued a veto threat, followed up with another statement this week, defended its foreign policy prerogatives and, according to the New York Times, “declined to allow Democrats to sign off on the bill until restrictions on travel to Cuba were removed.”
Pro-embargo legislators rose to the occasion. Resisting pressure from hardline colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid opposed the restrictions calling them “too important” to foreign policy to be shoved through Congress in this fashion. Rep. Harold Rogers, House Appropriations Chair, agreed to rewrite the bill and drop the Cuba language to shape a compromise and deter a government shutdown.
Congressional champions did their part. Rep. José Serrano fought privately and publicly against the Díaz-Balart provision. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and Senator Jerry Moran, who wanted to use the budget bill to end obstacles against food sales to Cuba, lost their provisions as part of the compromise. Senators Kerry, Conrad, and others were activated against the provision. Breaking ranks with the hardliners, Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, Florida penned a letter to the House conference committee members, writing:
We must not go back to the days when sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and grandsons and granddaughters were unable to visit sick or dying relatives in Cuba.
Editorial pages kicked in. In its editorial, the New York Times scorned legislators for acting to limit family visits just in time for the Christmas holidays. The Tampa Bay Times called the Díaz-Balart rider “a shameful tactic,” saying “(he) has no business, anyway, telling American citizens where they can and cannot travel.”
The people were heard. On a national level, grassroots organizations like the Latin America Working Group alerted their constituents as we and others notified our readers and sounded the alarm.
Perhaps most important, Floridians and Cuban Americans raised their voices. The Miami Herald reported that the majority of Cuban American callers to talk shows on Miami’s Spanish-language radio stations were “overwhelmingly and strongly in favor of unlimited travel, with many arguing that Washington has no right to limit their visits with relatives in Cuba.” A digital poll showed 60% of respondents opposed to the Diaz-Balart language. And considerable attention was paid to Yoani Sánchez when she tweeted from the island:
Mucha preocupacion en las calles habaneras ante posible restriccion de viajes y remesas a #Cuba Seria un terrible paso atras!
A lot of concern on the streets of Havana about the possible restriction of travel and remittances to #Cuba It would be a terrible step backwards!
All of this mattered a great deal. But again, why did this story – at this moment – end so happily?
First, cutting off travel is wrong, and so is dividing families. This principle – so blindingly obvious, so enshrined in our values and in global definitions of human rights – was protected this time by the Congress. While it is entirely possible that advocates for cutting family travel will be heard from again, the Congress is acting to honor these ideas and do the right thing.
Second, travel to Cuba is deeply meaningful to growing numbers in the diaspora. Statistics tell part of the story: Family visits declined by 80%, according to some estimates, following the Bush cutbacks. After the Obama reforms, the 2010 numbers exceeded 350,000 visits and the 2011 figures are likely to top those. In public opinion surveys, support for travel among Cuban Americans exceeds 60%.
But it’s about more than travel numbers; it’s about the heart and putting family above politics. As one veteran community leader said: “These are people just trying to have a rational relationship with family in Cuba. They’re not going to make themselves or their families martyrs for the point of view of someone else.” The desire among these families to provide emotional and financial support now, as their relatives experience enormous changes in Cuba as the government updates its economic model, is only growing.
Third, the political landscape is changing. Yes, as they often argue, the advocates for travel restrictions were elected by their constituents. But the change in local sentiment is palpable. The Obama travel reforms – in 2009 for Cuban Americans and the broader liberalization in 2011 – are investing increasing numbers of people in Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere in reaching beyond the Cold War habits of restricting liberties in the U.S. in the name of advancing democracy in Cuba. They like the new policy and they want to keep it.
When Senator Rubio stands on the Senate floor, as he did last night, and stretches the truth about the travel cutbacks, trying to assure his colleagues that the travel limits really aren’t that bad (what…he’s just for dividing families a little?), we take it as a sign that he and others know they are overreaching.
Suffice it to say that –and it’s important that my colleagues know that – what we’re asking for, what’s being asked for in the omnibus, and what will be coming over here if its kept in, won’t prohibit families from traveling to Cuba; it will just limit the amount that they can, and that’s a wise policy, one that I support, because it limits access to hard currency to a really tyrannical regime.” Senator Marco Rubio, U.S. Senate floor, December 15, 2011.
It’s premature to say the old order which has kept Cuba policy frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness is being overturned, but the politics around this issue have clearly been transformed and we acknowledge and welcome this change.
So, 2011 which began with President Obama opening the door to Cuba for people-to-people travel ends, we hope, with Congress doing the right thing and leaving the door open for Cuban families to continue being reunited. Just in time for the holidays.
This week in Cuba news…
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