Friends Don’t Let Congress Drive Cuba Policy

August 1, 2014

Congress spent a month spinning itself into a frenzy over the crisis at the southern border of the U.S.

But, after weeks of photo ops, accusations that the Obama Administration created the crisis and failed to stop it, and shameful efforts to marginalize the children who fled poverty and violence in order to get here, nothing happened.

The least productive Congress in modern history has spun itself into a ditch.  It has made the migration crisis so dire and so toxic that even punitive legislation to fix it became too hot to handle.  Backed up against their own deadline for the August recess, neither the House nor the Senate could find enough votes to pass even band aid-sized fixes to a greater than tourniquet-sized problem.

As of this publication, the House leadership is considering how to press forward – making the legislation meaner to migrants, which dooms the bill to failure – or by taking the moral highroad and driving off on vacation.  In the meanwhile, both House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (KY-5) and Speaker John Boehner issued statements telling the President to sweep up the mess by taking executive action (ironic, given the recent House decision to sue him for using his authority to implement health care reform).

There are media reports, such as here by the Wall Street Journal, saying the President will take broad action by September to address the crisis without waiting any longer for Congress to act.

While some in Congress hope the President will take executive action to fix the border, we and others have been urging the President to use his authority to make further reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy.

But, as the 44 signers of the letter supporting executive action on travel, negotiating with Cuba, and other issues, reminded President Obama in May, “Timing matters and this window of opportunity may not remain open indefinitely.”

What could close the window?  U.S. politics, as bad as it is, is likely to get worse.  There are just ninety-five days until the midterm elections take place; 156 days until the new Congress is seated.

What happens if today’s gridlocked Congress gives way to a 114th Session of Congress dominated by one party, as even non-partisan pundits predict today, and it takes on President Obama aggressively as he ends his term and the parties nominate candidates to replace him?  Does the window close and, if so, what happens to the hope for executive action then?

What happens if Charlie Crist, candidate for Governor in Florida, who has come out as anti-embargo and considered traveling to Cuba, is defeated in November by incumbent Governor Rick Scott in what is then interpreted as a referendum on Cuba policy reform?  What happens then?

What happens as policy changes that take long lead times – for example, solving the problem of a hemispheric boycott of the Summit of the Americas by inviting Cuba to participate – are eclipsed due to the passage of time?  What happens then?

What happens if Alan Gross’s physical health and mental state are as precarious as his legal team indicates?  If his condition deteriorates further, what happens then?

What happens if there is an abrupt change in the political structure in Cuba given the advanced ages of its senior leadership?  How could the window stay open then?

The President’s authority to take significant actions that reform Cuba policy, that free Alan Gross, whose imprisonment remains the chief obstacle to warming relations, and that speed the U.S. toward normalization, is greater than most people realize.  Once the Supreme Court acts, perhaps later this year, on a case with implications for the foreign policy powers of the presidency, the extent of his authority to make really big changes in U.S. – Cuba relations could grow larger still.

However, it is not the President’s power but his willingness to use it, given the political space he has and the time constraints that face him, which is pivotal now.  What also matters deeply – and we’re told, may matter more than many of us know – is whether the government in Havana understands just how close we are to the window of opportunity slamming shut.

President Obama’s actions in his first term to expand travel for Cuban families and people-to-people exchanges – described as modest here and disregarded as domestic politics by some in Cuba – continue to provide big benefits.  But, he can and should do a lot more.

To get there, it is President Obama and not Congress who must drive policy.  But, he should start revving the engine now before it is too late.

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