THE BLOG
11/10/2010 08:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cuba Symbolizes Failure of Obama Administration

I posted on The Havana Note a few days ago about the international isolation coming from the Obama Administration's embarrassing defense at the UN of the embargo of Cuba.

This post looks at the domestic side of the Administration's isolation because of its relative immobility on the issue of travel.

President Obama's minimalism on Cuba was not a direct factor in the large scale Democratic set-back in the mid-term election, although it could have been in at least one Congressional race in Florida.

However it is symptomatic of his Administration's capitulation to inside-the-beltway conventional wisdom which I believe contributed to Democratic losses.

One thing the election did achieve is to make it clear that the White House after January 1 is on its own to set US relations with Cuba on a rational course. There will be little help from the Congress. Hard line Cuban exile Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is expected to become chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and her close ally Senator Bob Menendez will take over the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.

Election results also ought to demonstrate once again to the White House that advice from fellow Democrats Menendez and Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is not only ideologically self-serving but also grossly misleading. They persuaded the President that announcement of approved reforms in non-tourist travel had to be postponed until after the election because it would damage Democratic candidates.

Just whom were they talking about? Third place Florida Senate candidate and their Cuba soul mate Kendrick Meek? In fact the delayed announcement most likely contributed to Joe Garcia's defeat in his House race against their other soul mate, David Rivera.

It is even possible that a goal of Menendez and Wasserman-Schultz was to damage Garcia's chances. The last thing they wanted was an articulate charismatic Cuban American in Congress with a more nuanced and positive position than theirs on US-Cuba relations. Garcia's victory would have been a major blow to the political lock of exile extremism.

The White House's opportunism in postponing liberalization of Cuba travel meant the President missed a chance just as campaigns heated up after Labor Day to send a signal to the nation that he was serious about using the power of the executive as a force for change. Is it any wonder that there was a dimunition of enthusiasm among younger voters, independents and progressive activists?

Can Obama now follow through on non-tourist travel? Has he recognized that he was misled by true believers with an exile agenda and that this is his last chance to move before facing the entrenched power of Ros-Lehtinen and Menendez? While the President is in Asia will the announcement finally be made by the State Department or the White House?

The longer the President delays, the harder it will be.

One can hope that the groundwork was laid by his meeting with twenty-one prominent leaders of Protestant churches the day before the election:

Church World Service, along with the National Council of Churches and other partners in the faith community, has advocated for more than five years for the lifting of travel restrictions that make national religious organizations like CWS, NCC and their member denominations eligible for travel to Cuba no more than once per quarter.

The tightened restrictions are an outgrowth of the Bush administration interpretation and application of the U.S. Code governing travel. Church leaders say the restrictions severely limit the opportunity for national church organizations -- which represent thousands of local congregations throughout the U.S. -- to fulfill a vital part of their mission, that of supporting and accompanying their partner churches in Cuba. The administration is able to remove the restrictions on religious and other "people to people" travel without congressional approval.

The President, CWS Executive Director John McCullough said, "indicated an appreciation for the historic relationship" between the churches of Cuba and the United States and "seemed very receptive to deepening the dialogue" around the issue of religious travel to Cuba.

And that he will pay attention to the October 28th letter from 30 leading US higher education institutions:

On behalf of the colleges and universities listed below, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) write to respectfully ask that you include the removal of current restrictions on academic travel to Cuba in the package of new policies you are considering in response to the transition underway in Cuba and the recent release of political prisoners there.

The regulations implemented in 2004 all but put a stop to educational exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba. We greatly appreciate the work your administration is doing to make it easier for Cubans to come to the U.S. on educational and cultural programs, and hope that similar steps can begin to be taken to increase opportunities for American students to travel to Cuba....

By lifting the current regulations on academic travel to Cuba, our institutions could begin to offer many more opportunities for students to study abroad in Cuba, to learn about the rich culture and history of the island nation, and begin to make the personal connections that can serve as a valuable platform for developing mutual understanding between our countries. (Full text here)

And to 16 business, travel and advocacy organizations that weighed in on October 29th re use of Presidential authority, most for the first time since Obama was elected two years ago:

We urge you to use this authority now, to do as much as you can to restore Americans' freedom to travel to Cuba. Increased citizen travel and exchange will broaden and deepen our commitment to Cuba's people at this critical moment in their history, while advancing our national interests.
Regulatory changes that further ease the travel ban would be a step in the right direction for your administration, building on your commitment by repairing the inequity that allows Americans to travel freely to any country in the world but Cuba....

It will stimulate further changes in Cuba and support engagement with the Cuban people. It will benefit the American people by restoring our freedom to travel and providing a significant economic stimulus to our agriculture and tourism sectors. (Full text here.)

Ending government control of travel may be one of the few issues with which the President can reach across the aisle to the libertarian instincts of incoming Tea Partiers.

A hopeful sign is that the New York Philharmonic, after a wasted year of inane objections from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), just received approval for performances in Havana, accompanied by its supporters.

My election "what-if" is imagining how the President acting boldly in early September might have affected attitudes about the Obama Administration and thus about Democratic candidates among the two-thirds of Americans who favor freedom to travel.

My post-election "what-if" is wondering whether the lesson of November 2d will be rediscovery of what made Barack Obama special.