Amid increasing excitement in the Cuban-American community, President Obama today finally made official his reversal of Bush administration travel restrictions to the long-ostracized communist island, the AP reports. Bush's '2004 policy' forbade Cuban-Americans from visiting nuclear family members on the island more than once every three years. Last month, Congress took the first step in easing restrictions by passing a budget version that divested funding from federal efforts to restrict travel, according to AFP. The announcement today goes even further by allowing unlimited travel and money transfers and easing rules that dictate what items may or may not be brought to the island.
The AP has a good explainer of the change and a cursory historical overview:[WATCH:]
News of Monday's announcement has been generally welcomed by many in the Cuban-American community, including, notably, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which has been a key player working with the Obama administration to shape the new policy. CANF has been known in years past somewhat derogatorily as the "Cuba lobby", and is often equated to AIPAC in the sense that it has long held a disproportionate amount of sway over US-Cuba policy (Lawrence Davidson's, Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest also gives a good historical overview of these lobbies' involvement in American foreign policy).
Thus it is a momentous change that CANF is now favorably anticipating the policy change, as exhibited in a March 13, 2009 press release that expressed approval of the Obama administration's stated position on the issue and proffered arguments against the Bush era restrictions. Furthermore, CANF has submitted a 14-page White Paper to the administration and has consulted with the White House on ways to prudently change America's Cuba policy to encourage a better relationship. From the press release:
It is our firm belief that the 2004 restrictions not only hindered our ability to provide humanitarian aid and support to nuclear and extended family alike, but also had the unintended effect of hampering our ability to support the families of political prisoners, Cuba's brave dissidents, and independent civil society members.
"President Obama expressed his support for a lifting of these restrictions as a step in moving Cuba policy forward in an effective and responsible way when we had the honor of hosting him at our annual luncheon event last May. In that spirit, we anticipate the President will continue to move U.S.-Cuba policy in a direction that truly supports the Cuban people in their struggle for democracy," stated Jorge Mas Santos, Chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Opposition to relaxed restrictions generally rests with the Cuba policy "old guard", to which CANF was once a defining member. Founded by the wealthy Cuban-American businessman Jorges Mas Canosa in 1981, CANF effectively oversaw the formulation of America's Cuba policy for decades. According to ThinkQuest.org:
Canosa fled Castro's regime, leaving with his family members, who were friends and employees of Batista. The following year, he took part in the Bay of Pigs attack.
Returing to the U.S., he amassed a great fortune, and founded the Cuban American National Foundation in 1981.
This organization has by political means effectively blocked any reconciliation with Cuba. It is possible that may change now.
His group and allies want no dialogue with the Cuban Government and Fidel Castro at all. He often used his power and influence to terrorize those who felt different, even if they still opposed Castro.
Canosa died in November 1997, but his uncompromising contempt for the Castro regime remains with "old guard" stalwarts. According to the New York Times, this group includes all of Florida's Republican Cuban-American members of Congress: Sen. Mel Martinez and Reps. Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The Diaz-Balart brothers issued a statement immediately after Obama's announcement today excoriating the decision. From The Hill:
"President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship," the two congressmen said in a joint statement.
"Unilateral concessions to the dictatorship embolden it to further isolate, imprison and brutalize pro-democracy activists, to continue to dictate which Cubans and Cuban-Americans are able to enter the island, and this unilateral concession provides the dictatorship with critical financial support"
That said, any legislative effort to ease restrictions further still -- such as current Congressional proposals to open up travel for all Americans, regardless of heritage or familial connection -- will not go unchallenged.
However, on a better note for those favorable of the new policy, Florida Senator Mel Martinez has issued a rather supportive statement, from MSNBC:
The announcement today is good news for Cuban families separated by the lack of freedom in Cuba. Likewise the change in remittances should provide help to families in need. Given these changes will benefit the regime in Havana, it would be wise in the implementation to place some reasonable limits on this type of travel and the amounts that can be sent to Cuba.
The president has expressed his commitment to freedom -- libertad -- for the Cuban people, and policy implementation should advance that objective. To this end, the administration is right to call on the Cuban government to end the onerous charge of 20 percent on remittances. Lowering remittance charges and allowing travel for Cuban families wishing to see relatives abroad are two steps the Cuban regime could immediately take that would show change in Havana.
The "old guard" position, based namely on its long-held disgust with the Castro regime, calls for absolutely no propitiations to Cuba's government whatsoever. Thus, the Castro regime is the sine qua non of all travel restrictions, sanctions and the trade embargo -- and it is still very much in control, though the presidency has been transferred to Fidel's brother Raul. Maria Werlau of the Cuba Archive, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, argues that a windfall for Cuban tourism should have attached conditions, lest it serve no other purpose but to fill Fidel and Raul's pockets: From Welau:
The Castro brothers have long fed delusions that engagement will bring change, no matter that legions of reform-touting emissaries have consistently come away empty-handed.
Ineffective efforts to end Cuba's isolation are manifest in the tourism industry. Over two million tourists from all over the world travel there annually, including U.S.-based visitors (an estimated 1.3 million in the past 10 years). Yet strict laws still govern labor relations with the foreign sector. Workers are selected for political allegiance and must be hired from a state enterprise that retains over 90% of their wages plus all tips. The state still owns the tourist industry, so billions in revenues continue to pour straight into its coffers or into overseas bank accounts.
The "old guard" demonstrates varying degrees of obstinance towards approaching Cuba. Welau's position is one of much caution -- but she does not favor a pure continuation of past policies like some, such as New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez or the Diaz-Balart brothers. The same goes for Mel Martinez, who has now come out in support of the administration's position. This recognition that some change in policy must be entertained is becoming increasingly accepted now that a policy which has reigned for decades has failed to topple the Castro regime. This also helps to explain CANF's position change. From the New York Times:
A 14-page proposal from the group, the Cuban American National Foundation, lays out what the document calls "a break from the past" that would "chart a new direction for U.S.-Cuba policy."
It is the basis of an ongoing discussion with the Obama administration, White House and foundation officials said, and it amounts to the group's most significant rejection of a national approach to Cuba that it helped shape and that has been defined by hostility and limited contact with the island.
Foundation officials described it as an effort to direct attention away from Fidel and Raúl Castro and toward the Cuban people.
"For 50 years we have been trying to change the Cuban government, the Cuban regime," said the foundation's president, Francisco J. Hernandez, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. "At the present time, what we have to do is change the emphasis to the Cuban people -- because they are going to be the ones who change things in Cuba."