Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Obama Might Change Cuba Policy

by: Shawn Zeller, Congresional Quarterly

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Obama will be urged to lift the embargo against Cuba.
(Photo: Lynne Sladky / AP)

Campaigning among Cuban-Americans in Florida this fall, Barack Obama promised that as president he would lift some of the restrictions on traveling to the island and on sending money to relatives back home. He said he wouldn't go further than that, but U.S. business groups want him to go on and lift the trade embargo that has been in place since the Kennedy administration.

Isolating Cuba, these groups contend, has not worked the way a succession of presidents hoped. Last week, several leading groups, including the National Foreign Trade Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, wrote Obama with their view "that the embargo is not having - and will not have - the type of economic impact that might influence the behavior of the Cuban government."

The letter followed the release of a report by Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, a free-trade group formed in 1914, that argues for a new Cuba policy. It has support from a number of past Democratic officials, including former Rep. Cal Dooley of California, who now is president of the chemical industry's Washington trade group, and James Dobbins, a Clinton-era National Security Council official who now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp.

The business community had some success in persuading Bill Clinton to loosen travel rules and sign a law allowing trade in food and medicine. But George W. Bush was not nearly as persuadable. He tightened travel rules; restricted humanitarian, agricultural and religious missions that Clinton routinely permitted; and even limited the travel of Cuban-Americans to see relatives on the island.

Business groups are taking heart in Obama's pledge to suspend restrictions on family remittances, visits and humanitarian packages from Cuban-Americans. And they'll probably get help from Democratic leaders in Congress. Embargo critics hold several key posts: Montana's Max Baucus , for example, chairs the Senate Finance Committee, while New York's Charles B. Rangel chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. Californian Howard L. Berman chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Colvin sees embargo politics as changing significantly as Florida's Hispanic population becomes more diverse and second-generation Cuban-Americans prove more willing to question the embargo's utility.

However, Obama won only about 35 percent of Cuban-American voters in Florida, according to exit polls, and Florida's Cuban-American community, with its considerable political clout, remains a big barrier to lifting sanctions.

Congress, says Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, will see through the motives of business groups "that just care about making money and don't care about the human side of the situation."

It would be a huge mistake, Claver-Carone contends, to abandon the embargo just as the Cuban regime is starting to strain under the worsening economy, the ill health of longtime dictator Fidel Castro and the political weakening of Castro's most recent patron, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

The first thing Obama must do, says Claver-Carone, is make clear to Cuba that the embargo will remain so long as Cuba refuses to democratize. Until Cuba does so, he says, "I know that there is majority bipartisan consensus in Congress that supports the sanctions."

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