By DAVID SCHOETZ | Cape Cod Times STAFF Writer
Delahunt slams the new, stricter rules and joins a House vote to cut off funds needed to implement the policy.
U.S. Rep. William Delahunt entered a hostile floor debate last week to denounce the Bush administration’s travel restrictions that hamper Cuban-Americans’ visits to Cuba.
Carlos Lazo, a Cuban-born medic serving in the U.S. military in Iraq, has two sons living in Cuba. Delahunt, D-Mass., used Lazo’s story to illustrate the severity of the travel restrictions.
Before June, Lazo could travel annually to Cuba to visit his two sons. Under the new rules, he can go only once every three years.
In the House vote that followed, enough Republicans crossed party lines to secure a 225-174 victory for an amendment that would deny the spending necessary to implement the stricter policies that took effect in June.
“We hear a lot about family values in this chamber,” Delahunt told his House colleagues. “Well, today, this is a test for those who constantly speak to family values. It’s time to put family above politics.”
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla., would deny the Treasury Department the funds to implement the new policy.
In this heated political season, a vote against a Bush policy in the Republican-controlled House is a significant win for Democrats.
In June, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry called the Bush administration’s travel and trade restrictions on Cuba a “cynical and misguided ploy for a few Florida votes.”
Republican Cuban-American Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, brothers who represent southern Florida districts and vehemently oppose Fidel Castro, have said that restrictions on Cuba will facilitate an uprising against the Communist dictator. It is a stance intended to appeal to anti-Castro Cuban-American voters in Florida.
An eye on voters
But Rob Sequin, the South Yarmouth publisher of the online Havana Journal, said the brothers’ appeal may not carry the same weight with second- and third-generation Cuban-American voters as it does with the first Cubans who fled to the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“There’s a disconnect between the first-generation Cubans and the third-generation Cubans,” said Sequin, who traveled legally to Cuba on a business trip last April. Sequin said he believes that regardless of party politics, eventually the United States will abandon all Cuban restrictions.
According to U.S. Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise, the Bush policies in question were designed for the “closing of loopholes” that allow money to make it to Castro. They are consistent with President Bush’s desire to end the dictator’s regime, she said.
“The administration’s position, from the day the president took office, is that he wants to hasten the day to a free Cuba,” Millerwise said, “and in doing so, hopes to choke off hard-currency dollars that are flowing out of the United States and into Cuba.”
According to Sarah Stephens, director of the Freedom to Travel Campaign at the Center for International Policy in Washington, last Tuesday’s House vote provided evidence of the new policy’s hollow connection to finance.
“The vote yesterday was about Cuban-Americans visiting family members in Cuba,” Stephens said, adding that the Bush policy “backfired” because it has left Cuban-Americans divided.
“As soon as the other side can come out and show some evidence that this money is going into Fidel Castro’s coffers, then we’ll have that conversation,” she said.
Delahunt keyed on a State Department statement that acknowledged “no humanitarian exceptions” to the restrictions.
“Think about that,” Delahunt said. “If your mother and father die within three years of each other, you have to decide which funeral to attend.”
Mary Zepernick of South Yarmouth, who has traveled twice to Cuba representing the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, called the Bush policy “deplorable.”
“This administration, even more than others - and others cannot be left off the hook - have politicized what is a humanitarian issue,” Zepernick said. “Any country in our back yard that dares to try another model feels the weight of the United States come down and crush it.”
Despite the impact of the House vote, the Davis amendment is likely to fall victim to veto by Republican leadership.
Steve Schwadron, a spokesman for Delahunt, said his boss was aware that the amendment faces an uncertain future. “We decided, he said, “that win or lose, this was a battle that needed waging.”