Thursday, June 17, 2010

Push for H.R. 4645 now or kiss it adios

Old Havana

If you'd like to see the travel ban lifted in 2010, now is the time to pressure U.S. lawmakers, anti-embargo activists say.
The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, or H.R. 4645, would allow Americans to travel to Cuba without any restrictions. Its supporters hope to get a vote on the bill before lawmakers take their July recess.
If that doesn't happen, the fight is only going to get "harder and harder" in the future, said Mavis Anderson, senior associate at the Latin America Working Group. That's because the November elections are approaching and many candidates are going to feel pressure to take a tough stance on Cuba, she said.


Congressional elections are set for November 2010, and 36 of the 100 seats in the Senate and all 435 seats in the House are up for grabs.
The race is also on for governor in Florida, where Cuba is often treated as a domestic political issue.
H.R. 4645, meantime, sits in the House Committee on Agriculture. Staffers said they had no word on whether there would be a committee vote - or mark-up, in Washington lingo - on the bill.
Anderson said she hopes for action sometime this month. Key to the cause, she said, is a letter signed by 74 Cuban dissidents in support of H.R. 4645.
The June 9 letter is proof that dissidents are against the very economic sanctions aimed at helping the political opposition in Cuba, Anderson said.
"It tears a big gaping hole in all the arguments of the status quo," she said of the letter. "This is a big opportunity to make some progress."
Among the signers:
  • Award-winning blogger Yoani Sanchez
  • Hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas
  • Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez
  • Miriam Leiva, a founder of Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, representing the wives, mothers and other relatives of jailed dissidents.
Pro-embargo forces released a letter of their own. It is addressed to Collin Peterson, chair of the Agriculture Committee. It criticizes Peterson for saying that people who oppose his bill "are not speaking on behalf of the Cuban people."
"Not only is your statement untrue, but also profoundly insulting to us," said the letter, signed by more than 250 former political prisoners.
"We are former Cuban political prisoners who have spent a combined 3,551 years in Castro's gulag. ...You have never taken the time to meet with any of us, nor have you invited us to testify before your committee. Mr. Peterson...you owe us an immediate apology..."


Pro-embargo activists also question the June 9 letter. They say that some of the 74 dissidents were pressured into signing the letter, which they describe as a creation of U.S.-based anti-embargo groups.
Hardliners have reacted to the June 9 letter with "a mix of repudiation and condescension," Cuba expert Phil Peters wrote on his blog, the Cuban Triangle. But, he says, people should not dismiss the letter. In a June 16 post, he wrote:
  • If the point of U.S. policy is to help Cubans, what could possibly be wrong with learning what Cubans in Cuba think?
  • If unrestricted travel is such a bad thing, why is there no effort – none whatsoever – by the Cuban American community or its representatives to stop their own people from traveling to Cuba?
  • Why should it be surprising that Cuban dissidents, who view freedom to travel as a universal right, would argue that no government – in Havana, Washington, or anywhere – has any business abridging that right?
  • And why should it be surprising that dissidents would argue that an end to U.S. restrictions would destroy the “spurious justification” that Cuban officials use to support Cuba’s restrictions?
  • Politics aside, can anyone imagine any group of Cubans, open and friendly by nature, saying they want foreign visitors kept out of their country?
  • Are we to expect that Cubans, alone in history among all peoples who have lived under communism, yearn for their country to be cut off from the outside world.
As for the fate of H.R. 4645, supporters and foes agree it will not pass the House without a fight.
"I don't like to make predictions," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, who writes the Capitol Hill Cubans blog. "I will say this: It's obviously not a slam dunk in the Agriculture Committee, which is probably the easiest."


If the Agriculture Committee approves the bill, it would still be subject to approval by the Foreign Affairs, Financial Services and Rules committees, he said. Those committees can waive jurisdiction, "but committees don't like to do that. You set a bad precedent," Claver-Carone said. "Then you open a door. People will start doing that for other foreign policy issues."
Claver-Carone said he does not believe Peterson will ask for a mark-up unless "he's comfortable that he has the votes. He will only do it if he's 100 percent sure he has the votes."
"It's not impossible," Claver-Carone said. "Nothing in life is impossible, but by far it's not a slam dunk. It's definitely very close."
A list of the fence-sitters on H.R. 4645 is here. Anderson said she encourages people to call them and send them letters.
"Seeing the bill pass in the House this year would be incredible," she said. "There's no question we have the votes in the Senate."


Note: I spoke to Mavis Anderson at the CubaCon 2010 conference in Provincetown, Mass. Havana Journal publisher Rob Sequin organized the event, which brought together all kinds of interesting folks who are passionate about Cuba. Rob is already talking about doing another conference next year. Having been to CubaCon 2010, I'd definitely consider going in 2011.

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