‘Baby steps’ herald beginning of end to Cuba blockade

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Despite a few missteps, momentum continues to build to end the 48 year-old US blockade of Cuba. There are some hopeful signs legislation can pass to lift the travel ban before the end of 2010. Cuba is the only country US citizens cannot freely travel to without a permit.

The new policy direction is running to catch up with dramatic shifts in US public opinion. Fully 67% of Americans want travel restrictions ended, including a majority of Cuban Americans. At its national convention in September, the AFL-CIO for the first time passed a resolution calling for an end to all travel and remittance restrictions.

Most policy analysts admit the aim of the blockade, to bring about the downfall of the Cuban government, has been an abysmal failure. They further admit it has actually been counterproductive - isolating the US in international affairs as evidenced by the unanimous vote in the Organization of American States to readmit Cuba last spring.

The new policy direction is also being fueled by demands from the US Chamber of Commerce, agribusiness, travel and transport industries that are being denied markets and losing out to foreign capitalist rivals. Corporate think tanks like the Brookings Institution have outlined strategies for ending the blockade.

These developments occur in the face of frantic efforts to block any changes by the ultra right and remnants of the right-wing Cuban American community, which is steadily losing influence. During the 2008 elections the US-Cuba Democracy PAC contributed $750,000 to candidates some of whom hold key positions in congressional committees that decide these matters.

The developments constitute important baby steps to end the blockade, but steps in a positive direction nonetheless. They occur despite the negative step taken by President Obama September 15 to reauthorize the US blockade by invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act on the grounds of "national interest."

The reauthorization comes in anticipation of an October 28 vote in the United Nations General Assembly that will condemn the blockade for the 18th consecutive year. Last year the UN voted 185 to 3 for ending the blockade.

A new process to normalize relations was put in motion by the Obama administration and Congress early in 2009. The actions relaxed severe restrictions on Cuban Americans to visit family and send remittances that had been imposed by the Bush administration. A procedure to begin to resolve differences between the two governments was established ranging on problems from migration to hurricane preparedness. Talks have also been held to reestablish direct mail service.

In the last 10 months, the State Department issued 5,500 more visas for Cubans to visit the United States than in a similar period before October 2008.

In late August New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson visited Cuba on a trade mission. He called for, in what some now refer to as the "Richardson Plan" an end to the blockade by beginning with so-called humanitarian measures in travel and exchange and and freedom for the Cuban Five, imprisoned in the US for 10 years.  This has some suggesting Richardson should be President Obama's special envoy in relation to changing Cuba policy.

"Let anybody go to Cuba. If you want to categorize it, we can do that," Richardson said. "My view is that people can change foreign policy. Change has to be supported by the American people. This is why travel (and exchange) is important."

On September 17, a US state department delegation visited Havana for the first time since 2002 to continue discussions on resuming direct mail service. Biva Williams, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, stayed for an additional week to continue talks, visit a farm cooperative, meet with five so-called "dissidents," and attend the mass concert organized by the Columbian music star Juanes.

In early September the US Departments of Treasury and Commerce issued amended regulations that almost completely eliminate restrictions on family travel, remittances, and gifts and modify some exports to Cuba.

According to a release by the US Government Accountability Office the changes fall within the broad authority the president possesses to modify the blockade, including authorization to license US telecommunications companies to enter into agreements with Cuban telecommunications providers.

President Obama also has the authority to significantly relax travel restrictions by granting general licenses to travel for non-family travelers including freelance journalists, professional researchers and full-time students.

In July the National Foreign Trade Council and USA Engage, a coalition of businesses joined academic, cultural exchange and trade groups in asking President Obama to lift restrictions on academic travel to Cuba. They also recommended permitting travel for Cuban academics to the US.

US Representatives Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called the GAO report a "roadmap" to ending the US blockade. But ultimately the only way for the blockade to end is through Congressional action.

Support continues to grow on the legislative front for the bi-partisan Freedom To Travel to Cuba Act (HR 874 and S428). If the legislation passes President Obama is expected to sign it. After a concerted lobbying effort by a broad coalition of business, peace and religious organizations, the Act enjoys the support of 180 members of Congress with 241 needed to pass.

As reported in The Hill on Oct. 12, the road will be much tougher in the Senate where 32 Senators have become co-sponsors. There S428 was introduced by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and so far they are unsure of a strategy for passage.

"We have not yet found a way," Dorgan said. "When we do, I guarantee we will have sufficient votes on the floor of the Senate to offer the American people the freedom they should have had in the last 50 or 60 years, and that is freedom to travel. In this case ... freedom has been taken from them and it is outrageous."

In the end, greater mass grassroots pressure on Congress reflecting majority public opinion will be the key to ending this shameful chapter in US foreign policy.

Photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com

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