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The New Cuba Divide

The New Cuba Divide

Mini Teaser: An unexpected alliance of farmers, northern liberals and western conservatives is emerging to challenge the U.S. political status quo on Cuba.

by Author(s): Daniel P. Erikson

The U.S. embargo of Cuba has been an extraordinarily resilient foreign policy, able to weather diverse political trends and even historical eras without substantial challenge. Change is afoot, however, and the best evidence of that change may be found in Congress. In July 2001, the House of Representatives voted for the second consecutive year to cut off the funds to enforce travel restrictions to Cuba; key Senators pushed for even broader repeal of the sanctions. The September 11 attacks stunted this process, but not, it seems, for very long. On the one hand, a palpable sense of national crisis eclipsed any movement to normalize relations with Cuba, particularly in light of Fidel Castro's public criticism of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. With the continued support of President Bush, the embargo seemed virtually unassailable. It was no small irony, therefore, that one of the chillier moments in U.S.-Cuban relations was suddenly interrupted by the first direct trade between the two countries in 38 years.

In November 2001, central Cuba was devastated by Hurricane Michelle, the most powerful storm to strike the island since the 1950s. When the United States offered humanitarian assistance, Cuba responded by negotiating an all-cash food purchase, made possible by U.S. legislation passed the previous year. Within a month, several American companies had consummated a deal with Cuba valued at nearly $30 million. The trade included shipments of frozen chicken and corn symbolically selected from nine different states, and, rather odd for the launching of such routine cargo, it shipped off from New Orleans to Havana with the fanfare of a press conference on the dock. In Congress, moreover, the sale breathed new life into the broader debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba. Castro spent the early days of 2002 greeting visitors such as Republican Senators Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chafee and Democrat Maria Cantwell, while a separate delegation from the House of Representatives toured the island. With the impending retirement of Jesse Helms and other anti-communist stalwarts, it has suddenly become possible to ask once again: Can U.S. Cuba policy be refashioned with Fidel Castro still in power?

The simplest, if not especially satisfying, answer to this question is perhaps yes, perhaps no. Congress has tried to take matters into its own hands before. Throughout much of the 1990s, debate was polarized between anti-Castro hardliners who advocated tightening sanctions to hasten the collapse of Cuban communism and "normalizers" who believed that establishing economic and diplomatic ties to the United States was the best way to bring about change in Cuba. At first, the hardliners held sway, as illustrated by the two main pieces of legislation dealing with U.S. Cuba policy: the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. But the failure of these policies to induce substantive change in Cuba has gradually nurtured a search for alternative strategies. At the same time, new political forces have elbowed their way into the Cuba debate. Together, these developments have turned the previously stable world of U.S.-Cuba politics upside down. We have witnessed high-profile defections and unlikely alliances between Democrats and Republicans, humanitarians and free-traders, religious organizations and American farmers. The realignment of these alliances composes the new Cuba divide. To appreciate its novelty, it is worth a moment's reflection on how it has come to be.

The Politics of the Cuban Embargo

The U.S. trade embargo of Cuba originated when President John F. Kennedy initiated the full embargo in 1962 through a presidential directive issued under the 1917 Trading With the Enemy Act. In 1963, the Treasury Department set forth the Cuban Asset Control Regulations, which further solidified many other aspects of the embargo, prohibiting all unlicensed financial transactions, forbidding direct or indirect imports from Cuba, and imposing a total freeze on Cuban government assets held in the United States. Through these regulatory initiatives, the Executive Branch cemented its power over U.S. Cuba policy, a dynamic that remained in place through the end of the Cold War. However, when the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of an estimated $3.5 to $4.5 billion in annual subsidies, Cuba's teetering economy prompted congressional hardliners "with support from Cuban Miami" to tighten the screws. Thus, it is only within the last decade that the U.S. Congress has asserted itself as the primary arbiter of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The signal indication of this shift was the passage of the aforementioned Cuban Democracy Act in 1992. Sponsored by then-Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), who represented a state with a large Cuban-American population, the bill codified the travel ban and extended the embargo to foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies operating abroad, affecting approximately $700 million a year in trade with Cuba. The act also legally required democratic elections in Cuba before the embargo could be lifted by the Executive Branch. This jurisdictional transition accelerated with the passage of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, which further codified the embargo and added provisions for penalizing foreign companies doing business in Cuba.

How did Congress emerge as the pre-eminent power broker on U.S. Cuba policy? The answer lies in the peculiar political calculus that frames this aspect of American foreign policy. For most of the embargo’s existence, the issue of U.S. Cuba policy has been a primary motivator for only one constituency: the exiled Cuban-American community, located predominantly in south Florida. Primarily composed of more affluent Cuban exiles with strong antipathy toward Castro, the Cuban-American contingent has played a brilliant hand, using sophisticated methods of political organization to bend presidential candidates to its views, despite the fact that Cuban Americans represent merely 5 percent of the Florida electorate. In particular, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), under the leadership of Jorge Mas Canosa until his death in 1997, was very effective in advancing an anti-Castro agenda.

Hardliners in Congress have also benefited from fortunate timing. The Cuba Democracy Act was passed less than a year after the Soviet Union's demise, when it seemed to some, incorrectly as it turned out, that the fall of Castro was imminent. Helms-Burton sailed through Congress four years later, shortly after the Cuban government shot down two unarmed civilian aircraft manned by pilots from "Brothers to the Rescue", , a Cuban-American exile group based in Miami.

It is hardly a coincidence, too, that both major pieces of legislation were passed and signed into law by incumbent presidents seeking re-election: George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This reflects the fact that Florida has emerged in recent years as a tightly contested swing state in presidential elections, a development that has magnified the influence of the Cuban-American constituency still further. All major presidential candidates since 1992â€"George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Al Gore, and George W. Bushâ€"have advocated continuing the sanctions regime against Cuba.

Thus, even as the Clinton Administration made modest moves to ease travel restrictions and promote cultural exchanges between the United States and Cuba, the anti-Castro congressional coalition remained in the driver's seat. Indeed, it even expanded its scope by reaching out to sympathetic Democratic allies such as Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. Such expansion was hindered, however, by the Pope's 1998 visit to Cuba and the Elián Gonzalez spectacle, discussed below, both of which highlighted simultaneously the repressive conditions in Cuba and the potential for an opening.

Elián Gonzalez and the China Syndrome

As we all know, appearances can be deceiving. While it seemed as though pro-embargo forces were gaining the upper hand, fundamental shifts were already underway that have since eroded the broad, but shallow, political support of anti-Castro hardliners in the Republican-dominated Congress. The media frenzy surrounding six-year old Elián Gonzalez, whose mother died trying to spirit herself and her son away from Cuba and the boy's father, temporarily gripped policymakers and legislators alike. Between January and April of 2000, seven different bills and resolutions were proposed in the House and Senate regarding Elián, with objectives ranging from his immediate naturalization to urging that the boy be returned to his father in Cuba. The cumulative effect of all this was to highlight the awkwardness of U.S.-Cuba relations in the weeks before Congress debated U.S. trade policy with another Communist country: Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR)--what amounted to most-favored nation stat us--with China.

The high stakes and drama of the PNTR debate marked the most important congressional vote on trade since the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it resonated with themes closely paralleling the debate over the U.S. embargo of Cuba. By granting China permanent most-favored nation status in lieu of an annual review, the PNTR vote raised deeper and divisive issues concerning the relationship of a more open trading order to the evolution of politics in non-democratic states. The Republican leadership in the House worked overtime to ensure the passage of PNTR. On May 24, 2000, the day of the vote, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) made an impassioned plea to Congress: "Information is the lifeblood of a market. It is also poison to dictators. If we vote 'no' today, we will condemn the people of China to a continued life of despair." The bill was approved by a vote of 237 to 197, with support from 164 Republicans and 73 Democrats. In the waning days of 2001, President Bush signed the official proclamation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

In retrospect, the PNTR vote, along with the core political argument used to achieve it, was instrumental in redrawing the battle lines in U.S. Cuba policymaking. This decision magnified discontent with the sanctions-oriented approach to U.S. Cuba policy, especially on the Republican side of the aisleâ€"which had already been evidenced by the dissent of prominent conservatives outside of Congress, such as Governor George Ryan of Illinois and former Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and Lawrence Eagleburger. Not long after the China vote, the House approved the sale of food and medicine to Cuba by a vote of 301 to 116 and restored the right of American travel to Cuba by 232 to 186 (a provision later stripped from a larger bill). As Republican lawmakers increasingly failed to see the rationale for simultaneously trading with China but sanctioning Cuba, an internal party debate erupted into warring New York Times op-ed pieces by Congressman George Nethercutt (R-WA) and Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC). The Republican push for normal trade with China continues to reverberate in discussions of U.S. Cuba policy, creating a dynamic that has emboldened pro-trade conservatives while forcing Castro’s strongest critics to seek new strategies.

The Farmers' Revolt and the New Alliance

This is only part of the story, however; as suggested above, other players have elbowed their way into the politics of the embargo. Although many religious organizations have opposed the Cuba embargo for years, the American farming lobby has now emerged as the most influential new voice in current policymaking. In Congress, it is led by several senior western Republicans who are being pressed by their constituencies to seek new markets. In Cold War days, these legislators would have supported anti-Castro initiatives as an easy way to accrue political capital within the party at little personal cost. The end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of a new farming crisis in the 1990s have changed all that, allowing a nascent coalition of liberal Democrats and western conservatives to pump new life into congressional momentum to repeal the Cuban embargo.

Support for these initiatives among the rank-and-file has faced strong opposition from Republican leadership, especially in the House. For example, in August 1999, then-Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO) offered an amendment to the Agriculture appropriations bill to allow agricultural and medical exports to rogue states, including Cuba. The amendment was passed in the Senate and then unilaterally stripped by the House leadership in conference, to the dismay of its Senate advocates. Still, evidence suggests that hardliners in the Republican leadership are increasingly isolated from the congressional mainstream. The farm lobby scored an important victory when the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act was signed into law in October 2000, just months after the PNTR vote. This act, sponsored by Nethercutt, finally does allow food and medicine trade with Cuba, and it made possible the all-cash purchases in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle. It is clearly the most significant legislative initiative passed on Cuba since the 1996 Helms-Burton bill. Nor is congressional pressure against the embargo easing. The October 2000 act still prohibits public financing of food sales to Cuba, and that restriction has now become the focus of subsequent efforts. The American Farming Bureau Federation is seeking exemption of U.S. products from all existing embargoes and sanctions, which are estimated to cost U.S. farmers 14 percent of the export market for rice, 10 percent for wheat, 5 percent for vegetable oil and barley, and 4 percent of foreign corn sales.

Nor is that all. The nascent coalition of New England liberals and western conservatives in the 107th Congress has introduced several other anti-embargo bills: the U.S.-Cuba Trade Act, the Free Trade With Cuba Act, the Cuba Humanitarian Trade Act, and the Cuba Food and Medicine Access Act. Most likely to pass, however, is the Bridges to the Cuban People Act, sponsored by Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), with a partner bill in the House of Representatives initiated by Congressmen José Serrano (D-NY) and Jim Leach (R-IA). This bill, which has broad bipartisan support among its co-sponsors, would authorize the unrestricted sale of food, farm equipment, agricultural commodities and medicines to Cuba, as well as repeal the central tenets of codification contained in Helms-Burton.

Does this nascent coalition foreshadow the demise of the nearly forty-year old embargo? Well, not quite yet, for pro-embargo forces have also been active. Senators Lieberman and Helms may seem more like a political odd couple than the leading edge of another potential ground shift in U.S. Cuba policy, but this past May they unveiled the first major legislative proposal by anti-Castro hardliners since 1996. Titled the Cuba Solidarity Act of 2001, the bill seeks to send $100 million in U.S. aid to dissidents and independent workers in Cuba over the next four years. Backed by the CANF, the pro-opposition emphasis of the bill marks a major strategic shift in the effort to undermine Castro's dictatorship. The House reflects the new divide as well. Before it are two major proposals, the Bridges to the Cuban People Act of the "normalizers" and the Cuba Internal Opposition Assistance Act of the pro-embargo school, each introduced with approximately eighty co-sponsors. Both bills claim to advance the cause of democratic transition in Cuba, but there is virtually no overlap in their congressional support.

It remains to be seen what Congress will do, but it is clear that the Lieberman-Helms Solidarity Act marks the boldest departure into new territory in U.S. Cuba policy. Modeled after the Solidarity approach that helped to bring about democracy in Poland, the bill seeks to rebut accusations that the isolation approach has done nothing for the Cuban people. By providing $100 million in fax machines, telecommunication equipment and other forms of aid to opponents of dictatorship in Cuba, the hardliners can maintain support for sanctions while claiming a form of political activism focused on Cuba itself.

But aside from the host of logistical questions raised by the proposed legislation, the Solidarity Act may have the unintended effect of undermining the legitimacy of Cuban dissident groups, who today stand falsely accused of being on the U.S. payroll. Unlike the support to Poland in the 1980s, the high level of public scrutiny such a proposal will face within both the United States and Cuba could undermine its purpose. When Castro heard of the proposal on a state visit to Portugal, he reportedly announced that it was “an excellent idea.†He should know; it is not the first time, after all, that an act designed to harm him stood to have precisely the opposite effect.

Cuban Americans: A House Divided

The new divide in congressional views on Cuba has been mirrored by a long-simmering tension in the CANF that burst into public view in the summer of 2001. Contrary to the accepted image, Cuban Miami has experienced a steady diversification in opinion on U.S. Cuba policy over the last decade. A Florida International University poll taken in October 2000 showed that a majority of this population supports selling food and medicine to Cuba, aiding the activities of human rights groups there, lifting the travel ban, and establishing a national dialogue between Cuba and the United States. Nevertheless, a large majority of Cuban Miamiâ€"62.4 percentâ€"favors continuing the embargo, a view perhaps bolstered by the fact that one-third of the Cuban-American community expects major political changes to occur in Cuba within the next two to five years.

These somewhat ambivalent attitudes are now reflected within the CANF. While the CANF has consistently advocated a hard-line anti-Castro position, a rift has emerged between the founding generation and younger Cuban Americans. That rift is illustrated by the controversy caused by members who feel that CANF President Jorge Mas Santos has been softening the foundation's opposition to Castro championed by his late father, Jorge Mas Canosa. What had been a latent conflict became apparent when board member Ninoska Perez Castellon abruptly resigned in late July, accusing Mas Santos of running the foundation as a dictatorship fit for Castro himself. In the following weeks, a score of hard-line board members resigned as well, proclaiming their distaste for the more moderate course being chartered by the foundation.

These resignations may be a harbinger of things to come. Growing dissension in Cuban-American ranks bears special significance for Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the three Cuban-American members of the House of Representatives. As legislators who have built their congressional careers advocating an uncompromising stance against the Castro government, a tilt toward moderation would represent a dramatic reversal of position. But as the U.S. embargo of Cuba enters its fortieth year, the generational divide between younger and older Cuban Americans may eventually dictate a tilt toward dialogue and away from isolation. The recent emergence of new Cuban-American organizations lobbying for the end of sanctions indicates that the pro-embargo crowd is losing its monopoly on Cuban-American opinion. Will there come a time when the anti-Castro passion of Cuban-American leaders will become a liability, not a strength, in the eyes of their principal constituency?

The Unfinished Business of U.S.-Cuba Relations

The new divide in U.S.-Cuba relations, between western farmers and anti-Castro ideologues, between legislators who favor dialogue with the Cuban regime and those who prefer to subvert it, marks the latest stage in the American relationship with Cuba. Whether this new stage will look much different from the old one, however, is still not clear, at least in the short term. Despite more congressional pressure to relax the embargo, opponents of relaxation have not only been active themselves, but they currently have the support of the White House. This is no small matter.

It is true that President Bush has continued the Clinton Administration's policy of granting (yet another) six-month waiver of the controversial Title III of Helms-Burton (which allows U.S. nationals to sue companies "trafficking" in expropriated property in Cuba). But in almost every other aspect of U.S. Cuba policy, Bush has pushed for measures that must please the harder-line Cuban-American constituents in south Florida. Early in the administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell ruled out the possibility of lifting the sanctions while Castro remains in power, and the President ordered the Treasury Department to enhance and expand enforcement of current prohibitions on trade and travel, as well as to strictly limit remittances. By commanding the Office of Foreign Assets Control to pursue a level of enforcement not seen under the Clinton Administration, Bush has positioned himself as an essential asset for the anti-Castro hardliners in Congress. In early January, too, Bush authorized the appointment of Otto Reich as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Reich, a prominent Cuban-American diplomat, faced strong opposition from the Democrat-controlled Senate, led by Senator Dodd. His past lobbying efforts for the Helms-Burton legislation, and well-known support for the current sanctions, signals that the State Department will remain tough on Cuba. The President’s slim electoral victory in Florida, coupled with the upcoming gubernatorial contest of his brother Jeb Bush, suggests that the White House will take a firm stand against normalization. Nixon may have gone to Beijing in 1972, but there will be no Bush in Havana in 2002.

Nevertheless, it remains an open question whether a policy that began with the directive of John F. Kennedy will need to be defended by the veto of George W. Bush. Most signs still point to a coming showdown on Cuba between pragmatists and ideologues within the Republican Party, between the older Cuban-American stalwarts and the more moderate younger generation, and between congressional reformers and the current leadership in the House of Representatives and the White House. Most observers believe that it is only a matter of time before the embargo is lifted, but who knows if Fidel's lease on life will be lifted first? The oddities of American politics being what they are, no one can be absolutely certain that the embargo will not last another forty years. But Semper Fidel? No; that, surely, is impossible.

Daniel P. Erikson is deputy director of the Cuba Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs.

Essay Types: Essay