When will the anti-Cuban blockade end?

President Obama last month removed Bush prohibitions on Cuban American visits to Cuba, also on money sent to families there. He promised dialogue. The State Department, however, once more designated Cuba as a terrorist nation. It prevented Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez from joining a birthday concert honoring Pete Seeger in New York.

Spokesperson Robert Wood explained, “I think the international community wants to see some steps from Havana to see, to gauge how serious the government there is.” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk opined, “It’s time for Cuba to demonstrate its willingness to take some steps and show some progress and change in philosophy.”

Cuban President Raul Castro responded: “It is not Cuba that should make gestures,” not Cuba that has “imposed any sanction on the United States,” prevented “that country’s entrepreneurs from doing business with ours,” and operated “a military base in the U.S. territory against that people’s will.”

The media has left unmentioned Congress’ role in any full restoration of normal relations with Cuba. In 1996, the Helms-Burton Law of 1996 shifted a hodgepodge of executive orders on the blockade to congressional jurisdiction. Developments there are crucial.

Representative William Delahunt (D-Mass.) introduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, H.R. 874, in February. That proposed legislation, supported by 138 co-sponsors, would keep the president from regulating or prohibiting travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. It declares current travels restrictions “shall cease to have any force or effect.”

In the Senate, Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) introduced companion bill S. 428, with identical language. It awaits consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is reportedly lukewarm to the bill, which has 26 co-sponsors. A few Cuban American activist groups do support these bills, according to the Latin American Working Group, a prime source of information on pending Cuba legislation (lawg.org).

Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will soon reintroduce legislation he sponsored two years ago aimed at promoting agricultural sales to Cuba. He envisions a $300 million spike in U.S. sales, bringing food exports up to $1 billion annually. No longer would Cuban buyers have to utilize third countries to pay cash to exporters prior to shipments leaving U.S. ports. Credit would become available through U.S. banks.

Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kans.) introduced similar legislation in March. His H.R. 1737 would also allow Cuban officials to meet with prospective exporters and inspect U.S. agriculture facilities. In March, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 1530, a proposal to end the blockade entirely, and H.R. 1531, legislation promoting the export of medical supplies and food products ― each with four co-sponsors. Rangel’s H.R. 1528, with five co-sponsors, would open up Cuban travel.

New York Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano offered H.R. 188 (there are no co-sponsors) aimed at removing all sanctions against Cuba. Another Serrano bill would ease the entry of Cuban baseball players into the United States.

Rangel last week told reporters Congress would end the Cuban embargo within 18 months. That assumption implies Washington could go along with Cuba probably refusing to signal acceptance of market imperatives and profiteering within its economy. Cuba may draw the line at buying U.S. goods and allowing U.S. companies to participate in joint ventures, along with other nations’ business enterprises.

Ultimately U.S. leaders see Cuba as a locus for investment and cheap labor, says analyst Stephen Gowans, adding, “The surest way to achieve this goal is to dismantle Cuba’s socialist system” (gowans.wordpress.com). President Raul Castro expressed determination recently “not to negotiate our sovereignty nor our political and economic system, the right to self-determination, nor our internal affairs.”

Writing on nacla.org, Michelle Chase predicts Washington will stop at opening up Cuban travel. The purpose, she suggests, is to widen existing divisions within Cuban society. Possible tools include exposure to well-off travelers feeding appetites for consumer goods, charity aid and selective trade, and Cuban American money flowing to families in Cuba. “Leaving the embargo in place is one way that Washington is trying to scuttle Havana’s ability to guide its own internal affairs,” she explains.

Nevertheless, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue told Rangels’ House Ways and Means committee in May 5 testimony, “The embargo has failed and it’s time for a change.” He pointed out, “We’re missing major economic opportunities” there.