The writers at West Wing would never let this into a script.
Next Tuesday, the first hearing on President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba takes place in …wait for it… the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues.
Senator Rubio, a big fan of travel and trade with China, supports tightening sanctions and cancelling negotiations with Cuba’s government due to its human rights policies.
Cuba hearings on Capitol Hill are normally cringe-worthy affairs dominated by hardliners backed by handpicked crowds, with moderates of both parties absent or silent, and with a few progressives checking in to remind everyone that policy didn’t work and never would.
This time could be different. Rubio, who strenuously opposes the diplomatic breakthrough, will not be peering down at the witnesses alone, even with all the prerogatives that come with banging his chairman’s gavel.
His panel has Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican Senator from Arizona, who just introduced bipartisan legislation to repeal all restrictions on the rights of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba.
Senator Tom Udall – a cosponsor of the Flake bill, who joined the delegation that brought Alan Gross home from Cuba – sits on the Democratic side of the dais (he was chairman of the subcommittee when it had a much shorter name).
The presiding Democrat is Senator Barbara Boxer, who wrote about her first visit to Cuba in 2002 with CDA’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba campaign, in this column in which she endorsed the Obama reforms.
In sum, this hearing – in the Subcommittee of many syllables – offers the hopeful prospect of balance, a real departure from hearings held in the past (much like the policy itself).
We’re not naïve, but this is indicative of a different mindset emerging on Capitol Hill.
Members of Congress are clearly energized by increases in public support for diplomatic relations with Cuba – by the influential agricultural coalition that wants Congress to end the embargo – by businesses large and small eager to trade with Cuba – and by leaders like Governor Cuomo who seek to champion the cause of expanding trade. There’s even a bipartisan coalition for modernizing the policy in the U.S. House!
They may also feel bolder because both countries appear to be keeping their heads in the talks on diplomatic recognition. U.S. and Cuban negotiators got a nice shout-out from the New York Times this morning for being focused on the task – despite the distractions of domestic politics and the temptation to revert to divisive rhetoric, given the lack of trust with which each country eyes the motives of the other.
What does this mean for Tuesday?
Even if conflict and caterwaul resound during the first hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues, hope could drown it all out.
The hope of José Daniel Ferrer, a leading dissident, quoted by the Times saying he has “reassessed his early concern that normalization of relations would embolden the Cuban government and hurt the cause of those who have been pressing for democratic reforms.”
The hope of Manuel Valdes, a young Cuban, who told NBC News, “I want to say to the good people of the States that finally we are not supposed to be enemies. I never felt that we are enemies, not at all, but our disagreeing politics, or political systems, pushed us to feel that way, and finally, that’s not happening anymore.”
The hope of Jim Donaldson, an American triathlete, who experienced one of the best examples of the benefits of engagement ever, “At the awards ceremony, a couple of Americans had won the juniors race, and they played the American national anthem…It was pretty exhilarating to hear the US national anthem played in Cuba.”
In a battle between the Subcommittee of many syllables and American athletes singing the Star Spangled Banner in Cuba with their hands over their hearts, who would you bet on?