By Ken Dilanian, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Political momentum is building behind efforts to soften America’s half-century old policy of isolating communist Cuba, foreign policy experts and lawmakers say.
President Obama, who promised during the campaign to lift restrictions put in place by President Bush on Cuban Americans visiting their relatives, has been largely silent on Cuba as the State Department reviews its policy toward the dictatorship. Last week, the House of Representatives jumped ahead of him by passing a provision in a spending bill banning enforcement of the very provisions Obama said he would repeal.
Also last week:
• The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana, issued a report pronouncing the 47-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba a failure.
• A group of diplomats, activists and academics working with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, released a “road map” calling for the removal of all restrictions on humanitarian travel to Cuba, more diplomatic dialogue and an easing of sanctions for art, movies and music. The group included Francisco Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, which has for years backed a tough stance.
“I think what you’re seeing is a trend,” said Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., who has long sponsored legislation that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba as tourists. After years of going nowhere, he says, the bill now stands a chance.
“I think many members are acknowledging, not publicly but privately, that this is such a failed policy it deserves a burial,” he said.
Changes are likely to happen incrementally. The House provisions, which also ease rules on the sale of food and medicine, will face opposition in the Senate. Among the opponents are Cuban-American lawmakers such as Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
While calling for engagement, Obama stopped short during the campaign of saying the U.S. should lift the embargo.
Some analysts nevertheless believe it will happen on his watch.
“When you have Lugar taking a position to the left of Obama, Obama is not going to be able to maintain that position,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “You’ve got farm state Republicans, Fortune 500 CEOs and U.S. oil companies all clamoring for some form of constructive engagement of Cuba.”
Obama has more political leeway than any president in recent memory because he won Florida in the election despite advocating more engagement with Cuba, said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which favors lifting the embargo. In contrast, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush campaigned on a tough Cuba stance.
The U.S. stance towards the island nation, now governed by Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl, was forged at the height of the Cold War and has been sustained in part because of domestic politics. Many in the Cuban-American community have long rejected efforts to moderate Cuba policy. Given Florida’s importance in presidential politics, Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the White House have tended to stand with them.
Yet opinion among Cuban Americans is shifting. A poll last month by Florida International University found that 55% of Cuban Americans favor lifting the embargo. Other polls have returned different results, but there is no doubt that a younger generation wants a fresh approach, Hernandez told USA TODAY.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is co-sponsoring the bill to allow American tourism to Cuba, said he believes such visits would lead to the lifting of the embargo, which he says merely bolsters Cuba’s repressive government.
“This policy really inures to the benefit of those who want to stay in power there,” Flake said.
Hernandez says that any change to the embargo policy “should wait for a significant response in kind from the Cuban government.”