Senator Menendez, the Dike has Burst
There he was, Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, holding forth from the well of the Senate making his Alamo stand against some very innocuous provisions to allow Cuban-American family members travel to Cuba and for American agricultural producers to carry out the business they already do with Cuba more efficiently during a time of economic recession.
Most analysts I speak with say this was a picture of a man trying to put his finger in a dike, knowing it was about to burst. Senator Menendez is, you see, the highest ranking Cuban American in Congress and, with the Diaz-Balart brothers and Rep. Lehtinen in the minority, the last hope for defending the embargo against Cuba in the 111th Congress.
Now, however, the dike has burst. At a time when the nation is reeling from the worst recession in years, our failed embargo on Cuba is keeping American farmers and businesses from significant orders. After the devastation of the 2008 hurricanes, the Cuban government is providing 75% of the food for its 11 million people. Most of that has to be imported from countries much further away than 90 miles. China just received the order for a new fleet of Cuban Buses—not Detroit. One third of Cuba’s housing stock is still gravely damaged or destroyed because the island cannot get the building materials to rebuild. Yet American suppliers would be happy to fill those orders.
Today that objective reality was made political reality by 15 Senators who signed onto a letter organized by Max Baucus, an ag state Senator from Montana. Addressed to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the Senators urged Tim Geithner not to stray from the letter of the law as passed by Congress in the Omnibus legislation, in effect telling Geithner that whatever deal Menendez thought he had with Treasury, it shall not stand.
This is important. The 2008 presidential election showed that the Cuban American community in South Florida no longer has a lock on Florida’s electoral vote, liberating the president from having to continue a policy of isolation that makes no sense for America. This letter, and its strong showing of support in the Senate, reveals that the Congressional control that pro-embargo members had is crumbling around them.
Menendez had already angered the Administration by holding up the appointment of Science Advisor John Holdren over perceived slights on Cuba policy. That Menendez, a member of the Senate Democratic Leadership, caused such tumult and likely embarrassment for the Obama administration and for Senate Majority Leader Reid on a must-pass piece of legislation was too much, and now Senator Baucus has added some parliamentary dynamite.
The new reality is that there is no political obstacle to a decisive shift on U.S. Cuba policy. Not in Florida and not on Capitol Hill. Now the question is about political will in the White House.
Seeing the Tipping Point
“It’s sort of all over but the shouting, whether our country should maintain this embargo.”—Senator Byron Dorgan
On the front page of The Washington Post today is an article by Karen DeYoung, entitled, “Momentum Grows for Relaxing U.S. Policy on Cuba.” The article announces the unveiling this week of bipartisan legislation to end the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.
It’s a party-line blurring fight. Senators Byron Dorgan (D) and Richard Lugar (R) and their House colleagues Reps. William Delahunt (D) and Jeff Flake (R) are lined up against Sen. Robert Menendez (D) and long-time House hard liners the Diaz-Balart brothers (R) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D). What it represents, however, is the first steps of a broad coalition of Members who are standing up to at long last to assert the national interest over the pecuniary interest of a small but well-monied and vocal clique that has held sway over Cuba policy for decades.
As I’ve written before, what we are seeing is the recognition that our Cuba policy is doing more harm than good to the United States. The policy has served more to keep the Castro regime in power than to dislodge it, by providing the communist government with a ready-made excuse for why their domestic economy is in such a shambles. The embargo itself is a massive black eye for the United States internationally and it remains the single most important issue for Latin America heads of state, as President Barack Obama will shortly find out at the Summit of the Americas. And, of course, the trade embargo is hurting American businesses, from farming to heavy machinery, to biotechnology to oil production.
The timing, however, is the consequence of the 2008 elections. The national polls tested the hypothesis that the demographic balance of forces in Florida had changed, thus freeing Washington from this onerous policy. That is indeed what happened. President Obama won Florida with only 35% of the Cuban American vote—the first time since the end of the Cold War that this happened. With 10% of the electoral college, Florida is seen as an essential state, giving any must-have constituency an outsize say in the affairs of the nation. With more recent polling showing that the 55% of the Cuban American community in Florida wants to end the embargo, the tide has unmistakably turned.
This new legislation is the manifestation of of all these changes. While the Vice President maintains a position that the administration has no intention of ending the embargo, the statement is tactical. The administration does not control the embargo, Congress does and what Congress is doing is proposing legisation that takes aim directly at the embargo while giving the President political cover.
The embargo, it seems, is not long for this world. I just hope everyone is ready for when the walls actually come down. On both sides of the Straits of Florida.