United States Cuba Policy & Business Blog

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cuba Travel Ban Hearing Coverage & Analysis

A Lesson in the Hard School of Capitol Hill Politics – Serious Work Lies Ahead
President Obama Responds to Cuban Blogger
There are plenty of media reports on today’s travel hearing.


The fireworks began as early as 7:00 AM Thursday when those of us supporting lifting the travel ban arrived to get our places in line and a seat at the hearing. We arrived en masse an hour before the pro travel restriction forces did – represented mostly by elderly former political prisoners in Cuba who now live in the U.S., who much to their dismay discovered that they were not in the front of the line. Congresswoman Ros Lehtinen had to personally come out to the line with a Capitol Police Officer to calm the crowd and preside over an orderly entrance into the hearing room.
.Then the hearing began and the investment made by anti-travel forces through their embargo PAC sprung immediate returns. A lesson was given on how the power of political money can fight and obfuscate an otherwise winning argument of public policy. We witnessed what a few thousand dollars in campaign contributions will get you in Washington DC. Not that this is illegal. This is just how the game is played under the rules. I wish the rules were different, but there are no exceptions. As a seasoned veteran of successful significant legislative battles in the past, I understood exactly what was occurring. I think others on the pro-travel side understand what needs to done after this hearing.
Member after member who both received PAC donations and ironically had never even traveled to Cuba (except for the two who were from Cuba – Ros Lehtinen and Sires) sat through most of the hearing and began echoing the same tired and flawed arguments with the emotion and drama that somehow maintaining the ongoing violation of our rights as Americans to travel anywhere and isolating the Cuban people somehow translates into democratic change in Cuba. There was no reasoning on this issue. Pro travel Members, representing the majority of Americans and even Cuban Americans repeated the legitimate, sound, and rational policy arguments to restore the right to travel to Cuba freely for all Americans. But in an atmosphere where the contorted logic – that somehow maintaining our failed status quo policies with Cuba will change Cuba seemed to damper the efforts to progress onto a new and just conclusion – that all Americans should be free to travel to Cuba, period. In the end, Cuba’s transformation to its next evolution as a country will be determined by its people, and not through our interference. We do not need to interfere. All we need to do is influence, respectfully. The agents of influence, we the American people, are being held back by our own government and elected Representatives, for a campaign donation from an opposition that uses money and emotion to hold the issue hostage. That is the irony.

Regarding witness testimony:

-Cuban American witness Ignacio Sosa gave compelling testimony and successfully answered challenges posed to him by the anti-travel Congressmen questions. Mr. Sosa brilliantly explained his personal transformation from being pro-embargo to pro-travel/engagement and the social demographics unique to the United States that will actually foster change in Cuba when travel restrictions are lifted. He enlightened the Committee – 34 million Americans speak Spanish as their first language. With half the island population of Cuba having relatives and family in the U.S. there is no stronger ethnic and cultural combination for promoting peaceful change.
.-General Barry McCaffrey had to control himself after being insulted and disrespected by Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen (this is part of the tactics of the embargo forces – insult and disrespect those you really cannot intellectually or successfully argue with). General McCaffrey revealed an important fact – Cuba does not even score on the top 20 list of current national security concerns for the United States, yet it still remains on the Terror List of countries. He also stated that Cuba’s intelligence objectives were primarily defensive in his expert opinion. This of course riled Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, whose strategy includes seeking to create the perception that letting us travel to Cuba freely will somehow unleash a tidal wave of Cuban spying on the United States. The historical record of both countries is replete with U.S. Cuba spy games. She would have us ignore that a consequence of our present socioeconomic and political isolation of Cuba has driven it to the support and comfort from international rivals – China, Venezuela, Iran, and Russia and marginalize the United States in the process. But Rep. Ros-Lehtinen has a historical personal score to settle with the Cuban government and uses her bully pulpit and the U.S. taxpayer in the process. She also echoed calling for the return of U.S. fugitives in Cuba – something that I believe is an important part of the successful resolution of our conflict with Cuba. I wondered though how many of our elected officials really understand diplomacy and international relations --Extraditions and extradition agreements happen in the course of diplomatic negotiations, not as a precondition to having those negotiations. And then extradition agreements must be abided by for them to work. We have some work to do on this point.
I was also struck by the fear mongering of Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind), author of the infamous Helms-Burton Act, as he began to describe his perceived and apparent communist threat in Latin America. It occurred to me that the rise of left leaning governments in Latin America are a direct response to the tremendous poverty that still exists – the deadly trio of malnutrition, illiteracy, and lack of basic health care; the ignorance of that reality by right wing political elements in those countries; and the inability and limited effectiveness of our present U.S. foreign policy in the region to address those problems. Poverty is the enemy of democracy. Congressman Burton does not get it.
.-Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute presented his testimony skillfully and strategically, always putting the logical ball and fallacies of their arguments back into the court of anti travel Congressmen. But then he was placed in an untenable position of having to answer if he ever asked for the permission of the Cuban government to visit political prisoners in Cuba on his regular trips to the island. Mr. Peters explained of his earnest efforts to improve human rights and dialogue with dissidents in Cuba in the course of his travels there. Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) complained that he and Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) have never been allowed to visit the island and political prisoners in Cuba. My thought -- There must be something wrong in the Congressman’s approach or protocol as Cuba generally welcomes visits from Members of Congress.
-Miriam Leiva gave passionate testimony live from Havana as a Cuban living in Cuba, being the wife of a former political prisoner released from the Black Spring crackdown of 2003, a founder of the Ladies in White, and as an independent journalist. Her message was clear to the Congressional Committee – lift the travel ban for all Americans now. She also presented cogent arguments why lifting the travel ban would help Cuban society and be in the best interests of the United States.
-Bertha Antunez, the sister of another Cuban political prisoner gave contrary testimony. She actually testified to Congressman Greg Meeks (D-NY) that Americans should not be allowed to freely travel to Cuba--that this was the only way to change things in Cuba. She even stated she did not agree with President Obama’s recent lifting of travel restrictions for Cuban Americans! I felt sorry for Ms. Antunez who was obviously way in over her head and it became evident to everyone she was there at the behest of others. She complained that she had brought a letter from her then imprisoned brother to the Congress in the past and was ignored, and when asked if she had the letter with her to present then, she replied that she did not have the letter. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) offered her support to Ms. Antunez.
-Ambassador James Cason, a former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and now head of the Center for a Free Cuba (which receives multimillion taxpayer funded grants to operate) tried to present an argument that lifting the travel ban would not change anything in Cuba and marginalized its impact on Cuban society – that Americans would only go to Cuba “for the beach, mojitos, cigars, and sex “and do nothing to help the Cuban people but help keep the current Cuban government in power. I do not think he was persuasive, but it did not matter to the anti-travel Members who used his flawed arguments as an echo chamber in the hearing room.
-Even Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez sent testimony to the Committee calling for lifting the travel ban and ending the embargo. Most interesting though was her questionnaires that were sent to President Obama and President Raul Castro and answers in response to her by President Obama. This led me to wonder – who on President Obama’s staff assisted the POTUS in responding to Ms. Sanchez – just who is the Wizard of Oz of U.S. Cuba policy now at the White House? It is an interesting response by President Obama and assures Ms. Sanchez a place in the history of the resolution of the U.S. Cuba conflict.
.As the hearing ended, I shook hands with a former political prisoner and told him I was sorry for his plight and all who have suffered in this conflict. Our rights to freely travel to Cuba though, do not need to be sacrificed by our own government to achieve a positive political outcome there. That is the political translation that we must make.
Serious work lies ahead as the advantage held by pro-travel forces must be strengthened with political resolve. In Washington DC, money is an integral part of the successful political equation. Money equals commitment. Pro travel forces were challenged by today’s hearing to demonstrate just that – political commitment. We have a winning argument, in spite of the passions and distortions of the other side. Now we have to demonstrate our political commitment. American rights, values, and interests are at stake and the hopes and dreams for a better future of our island neighbor off the coast of Florida.
Documents submitted at the hearing by witnesses will be uploaded and made available on a subsequent posting.
President Obama’s responses to Yoani Sanchez are below.


Anonymous said...

"Money equals commitment."

A very real yet, disheartening statement. It is really repulsive to know that in a democracy money buys votes, money influences opinion and money determines policy. What message does that send the people of Cuba?

Isn’t that very statement one of the reasons Castro got to where he is in the first place?