By Peter S. Canellos | Boston Globe
WASHINGTON—President Bush has never wielded a veto pen in anger. Not for a $180 billion deficit-swelling farm bill. Not for a pork-encrusted appropriations bill. But this week, he’s threatening. The House and Senate, by large majorities, voted to deny funds for enforcing a tightened ban on travel to Cuba, which Bush announced to much fanfare before an audience of Cuban-American hard-liners earlier this month.
In the past, Bush has relied on the compliant leaders of the House and Senate to carve up bills to his liking in conference committee. This process allows the president to avoid causing rancor—or leaving any political fingerprints—by vetoing a bill. This week, House and Senate conferees may well do Bush’s bidding again. Or they may not, believing that a 59-to-38 Senate majority and a 227-to-188 House majority shouldn’t have their preferences left on the butcher’s block like pieces of gristle.
There are reasonable policy considerations on both sides. At issue is the best way to promote change on an island nation inured to 44 years of Fidel Castro’s regime, which has outlasted 10 American presidents. Supporters of the travel restrictions and economic embargo contend that the best way to punish Castro for his jailing of 75 dissidents in April—not to mention his past threats to the United States—is to starve his administration of any outside dollars.
Growing numbers of critics have contended that the boycott has backfired, giving Castro a ready excuse for any failure of his regime: The Americans are starving Cuba.
Congressman William D. Delahunt, who has worked against the travel ban as cochairman of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, argues that one type of travel banned by Bush, a “people to people” plan promoting professional exchanges, actually encourages democracy by opening Cuba to outside influences.
“It introduces different ideas, exchanges of information, a rebuilding of a climate of trust,” declared Delahunt.
If the policy differences are reasoned, the politics are anything but. Polls suggest that Cuban-Americans are evenly divided on the issue, with perhaps even a majority favoring a “nonconfrontational” approach to Castro. Despite the balanced polls, it’s hardly a political wash. Hard-liners in the Miami exile community control much of the Spanish-language media and wield disproportionate influence in Florida’s crucial presidential vote. And while Cuban-American moderates assess political candidates on a range of issues, staunch anti-Castro Cubans tend to vote solely on which candidate will be tougher on the Cuban dictator.
Bush’s policy is tailored to the particular needs of the hard-line exiles down to its last inseam. While targeting Cuba’s tourist industry, Bush has loosened travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans who have relatives on the island nation, because aging Bay of Pigs-era immigrants are despairing of the chance to see long-lost brothers and sisters. While trying to keep dollars out of Cuba, the White House allows Cuban-Americans to send generous sums to their families in the homeland. Family bonds transcend politics.
Still, the hard-liners have hardly acted grateful, perhaps aware that they hold Bush’s electoral chances in their hands. They recently attacked the president for enforcing a long-established policy and returning a group of Cubans trying to make it to Florida in an old Chevy truck-turned-raft.
That prompted Bush’s latest attempt to appease the hard-liners. Standing in the Rose Garden, Bush excoriated Castro in language reminiscent of the attacks on Saddam Hussein. He called Castro a tyrant who encourages “the illicit sex trade, a modern form of slavery.” Ana Louise Bardach, author of a respected book on Cuba, claims prostitution in Cuba, while worrisome, is far less prevalent than in some South American countries.
For all his past attacks on the United States, Castro hasn’t been an imminent threat for 41 years. Last year, he hosted a happy reunion of all the participants in the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis, flattering his old antagonists, like former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, like a patriarch entertaining an extended family. Those who tend to regard him as a lovable old rogue probably were jarred by his crackdown on dissidents. He’s still a rogue, and not very lovable.
Before granting Bush his wish, the House and Senate conferees may well ask themselves whether the Homeland Security Department has better things to do than policing American tourists who sneak through Canada for a quick jaunt to the land of the Buena Vista Social Club. And given limited resources, Congress might also consider whether the Treasury Department would be better off putting its energy into following the money link to Osama bin Laden rather than checking for under-the-table business deals with Havana.