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Cuba: U.S. Congress Leaning Away From Economic Blockade

Should the United States continue trying to contain communist Cuba or engage it in hopes of helping to restore democracy to the island? The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is determined to continue a tough policy toward Cuba, and the approach is being examined in Congress.

Washington, 25 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A recent vote in the U.S. Congress shows that a growing number of American legislators believe it is time to de-escalate the Cold War with communist Cuba, an island just 150 kilometers off the U.S. coast.

On 23 July, the House of Representatives voted 262-167 in favor of an amendment to an appropriations bill that would end the ban on travel by American tourists to the communist-run country.

By a similar vote, the House voted for an amendment that would remove the $1,200 annual limit on money that Cuban Americans can send to family members still living on the island.

And by a voice vote -- for which an exact total is not given -- the House approved a third amendment that would remove barriers to selling food and medicine to Cuba.

However, House members voted to maintain the overall political and economic embargo against Cuba, which has been in place for four decades, since President Fidel Castro declared that he was a communist and was aligning his country closely with the Soviet Union.

All four amendments voted on by the House on 23 July were part of a bill that would fund the U.S. Treasury. The Senate's version of the same bill also includes an amendment that would ease travel restrictions on Americans wishing to visit Cuba.

It is unclear, however, whether the combined version of the House and Senate bills will include the other amendments permitting greater contacts between the two countries. But U.S. President George W. Bush, like his predecessors in the White House, opposes the lifting of such restrictions. Bush says that if any of the amendments is in the final bill, he will veto the entire measure. And on 24 July, Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, restated that position.

For years, the embargo and other restrictions on U.S. contacts with Cuba remained unchallenged in Congress as the Soviet Union lavished financial support on the island, which is just off the coast of the American state of Florida.

In the early 1960s, Cuba was a direct military threat to the United States because it permitted the Soviet Union to use the island to host some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles. Moscow agreed to remove them after a diplomatic confrontation in 1962 between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

After that crisis, Cuba continued to be a threat to the entire Western Hemisphere by vowing to export its brand of Marxist revolution to other countries in the Americas.

But with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba is now only one of three communist countries in the world, along with China and North Korea. Without Moscow's financial backing, the island is falling deeper into poverty and is increasingly perceived as posing no threat to any country in the West, much less the United States.

As a result, there has been a move to increase U.S. contacts with Cuba, if only to show its people that there are alternatives to the political system that has prevailed in their country for more than 40 years.

But Bush says he will permit no easing of restrictions on U.S. contacts with Cuba as long as Castro maintains a one-party political system and ignores basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

On 23 July, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reinforced that policy in his daily news briefing. "The president's new initiative for Cuba commits the United States to take steps to improve relations if Cuba takes steps towards democracy and ending human-rights abuses," Boucher said.

But a dwindling number of people in Washington appear to subscribe to the Bush doctrine on Cuba. One is Leon Fuerth, who served as national-security adviser to Al Gore when he was vice president under President Bill Clinton, Bush's immediate predecessor.

Fuerth, now a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, told RFE/RL that "the Cold War consensus about Cuba is fading."

According to Fuerth, it is important to compare what restrictions the House voted to lift and those it voted to keep. He said that maintaining the overall embargo will continue to constrain Castro politically, while lifting the other restrictions will help the people of Cuba. "The Congress is just about right: some rule or reason [to] shift in a direction that makes life less difficult for the people of Cuba but not at this point lifting the entire embargo," Fuerth said.

It is also important to note, Fuerth said, that scores of Republicans -- members of Bush's party -- voted to lift these restrictions, though Bush has threatened to veto any such legislation. And he pointed out that all three amendments that were approved had been sponsored by Republicans.

And Fuerth questioned the credibility of reports that have surfaced in recent months that Castro is harboring international terrorists and is trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

If there was any evidence to back up these reports, Fuerth said, the Bush administration could have used it successfully to persuade House members to vote against the easing of any restrictions on U.S. contacts with Cuba.

He said that if the present administration has anything to say about Cuba's developing weapons of mass destruction or harboring terrorists, it had better tell Congress. "Because if those things can be substantiated, then that ought to affect this trend that you can clearly see toward softening the sanctions," Fuerth said.

Fuerth's arguments do not convince Joe Garcia, the executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, an anti-Castro advocacy group with offices in several U.S. cities, including Miami, the biggest city in Florida, where thousands of Cuban refugees live.

Garcia said any easing of travel or trade to Cuba would only prolong communism there. He said the United States must maintain its policy of denying concessions until Castro opens up his country's political system. "We should not let Castro get any more resources. This is a dictator that has been condemned eight out of nine times before the [United Nations] Human Rights Commission in the last nine years. This is a regime that as recently as two weeks ago quashed any chance of democratic reform," Garcia said.

According to Garcia, U.S. legislators are deceiving themselves if they believe they can persuade Castro to change the way he governs in exchange for tourist dollars or shipments of U.S. food and medicine. "You have to confront regimes that are illegitimate. If you pet a crocodile, it doesn't make a crocodile nice, it's still a crocodile. To think that if we coddled Castro we somehow are going to make him commit to some form of human rights or some form of democracy is sheer and total fantasy," Garcia said.

But while some of the estimated 900,000 Cuban Americans in Florida may agree with Garcia, it appears that more and more Americans elsewhere, including members of Congress, believe that it is now time to end the United States' economic and political blockade of Cuba.