By William E. Gibson and Vanessa Bauzá | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
For the past three years, Wendy Alonso has felt trapped by strict U.S. travel restrictions that have kept her from visiting her father, grandmothers and other relatives in Cuba.
Now, like other Cuban-Americans yearning to see their families, and farmers eager to sell goods to Cuba, Alonso hopes for brighter prospects when Democrats take control of Congress next year.
“It’s all about the family,” said Alonso, 18, of Tamarac. “I don’t really care about anything else. I really do hope they change the law so at least people like me can go [to Cuba] every year.”
Proponents of easing travel restrictions and other sanctions, emboldened by this month’s congressional elections, foresee a more receptive climate for new policies to help Americans connect with the Cuban people. The Cuban-exile lobby, weakened by fragmentation and the departure of allies on Capitol Hill, is looking to President Bush to wield his veto power to protect the U.S. embargo.
“Our job will be tougher now,” said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, a champion of sanctions against Cuba. “The Cuban dictator is going to have strong allies in positions of power in Congress. But I am absolutely convinced that the cause of freedom in Cuba is going to prevail no matter what the efforts are to prolong the dictatorship.”
All sides in the long-running U.S. debate say they want to encourage democracy and free markets in Cuba. While Diaz-Balart and many hard-line Cuban exiles argue that travel and commerce would prop up the Fidel Castro government, advocates for a new policy say American engagement would encourage reforms as Cuba heads toward a post-Castro transition.
“I think we will see some legislation come forward but not as much as we would like,” said Alfredo Duran, president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a Miami-based group of moderate Cuban-Americans generally opposed to embargo policies.
Easing travel restrictions, especially for Cuban-American families, is the first step, he said.
“Cubans need to be part of the 21st century,” Duran said, “and the people best able to give them that opportunity and take away their fears are their relatives.”
Nobody expects removal of the U.S. embargo or establishment of normal relations with Cuba any time soon. But some House members, while preparing to visit Cuba next month, see a clear path for legislation that would loosen the rules on travel and remittances, particularly by Cuban-Americans who want to deliver goods to their families.
Further fueling prospects for change is a congressional investigation into questionable U.S. spending on programs intended to undermine the Cuban government, including money spent for such items as computer games, crab meat and leather coats. A study by the Government Accountability Office found mismanagement and lax oversight of portions of the $73 million paid to U.S. organizations from 1996 to 2005 to promote democracy in Cuba, most of it awarded without competitive bids.
Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., who will become chairman of the House International Relations Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, promised hearings as early as January on the findings.
Looking beyond the hearings, anti-embargo forces hope to eventually make it easier for farmers to sell food to Cuba and to develop academic exchanges.
And they plan to press legislation that would allow American companies to bid for contracts to drill for oil and gas along the Cuban coast. Cuba is forming contracts with companies from China, Canada and Europe to explore offshore energy sources.
“If there’s going to be drilling in the Florida Straits 50 miles from the Keys, my guess is that Floridians and Americans in general would rather it be done by U.S. firms with better and safer technology,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who for years has tried to allow more American engagement with Cuba.
Flake and about a half-dozen fellow House members plan to meet with Cuban officials, U.S. diplomats and dissidents on a trip to Havana next month, partly to talk about obstacles to U.S. sales of food to Cuba.
“I think we have the planets aligned now,” Flake said. “We see more support for change in South Florida. The GAO report has got to be intensely embarrassing to the Bush administration. You can add to that the new Congress and changes in Cuba, with Fidel unlikely to resume his position in full capacity.”
Any change in U.S. policy is likely to come gradually, however.
Cuba-related legislation is nowhere near the top of the Democratic agenda, which focuses on the war in Iraq, raising the minimum wage, establishing ethics rules for Congress and making drug coverage affordable.
Presidents of both major parties have perpetuated the embargo, imposed in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.
In the 1990s, the Republican-run Congress sharply tightened the embargo to try to isolate Castro and to prevent President Bill Clinton from moving toward closer relations with Cuba. Under pressure from U.S. farmers and free traders, Congress did allow sales of food to the island.
President Bush has further tightened the embargo by sharply restricting travel and requiring advance payments for food sales. Cuban-Americans now can visit Cuba only once every three years, and the money they are allowed to spend each day has been cut from $164 to $50.
Francisco Montiel, a veteran of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and self-described “hard-liner” who lives in West Palm Beach, said tough economic sanctions on Cuba are the only way to cripple Castro’s hold on power. But Montiel, 72, said he knows recent Cuban immigrants are more likely to favor easing travel restrictions. “I’m afraid of the changes Congress might do to help Castro,” he said.
Even some embargo supporters favor loosening of travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans. All sides of the American debate, however, say more fundamental change likely will not occur until Castro dies and Cuba reforms itself.
“In the absence of Cuba making major concessions—releasing political prisoners, allowing a multiparty system and freedom of the press—I don’t see Congress making significant changes,” said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, an advocacy group in Washington that supports sanctions. “Only then would Congress insist on some concessions from the Bush administration.”