Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cuba trade ban stands despite rising efforts to end it

Posted on Saturday, 08.29.09
Cuba trade ban stands despite rising efforts to end it

WASHINGTON -- President Obama's decision in April to lift the limit on
visits by Cuban Americans to their homeland was seen by some as a sign
that the embargo, centerpiece of U.S. efforts to isolate the island,
might be nearing its final days.

Don't count on it.

The president can weaken the embargo, but only Congress can rescind it.
Embargo supporters in both houses, including Florida lawmakers from each
party, remain confident they have the votes.

But something more nuanced is happening, a slow erosion:

• Miami Herald reporters visiting the island found that, embargo or no
embargo, huge stockpiles of American-made goods are finding their way to
Cuba -- sometimes legally, often not. From sunglasses to jetliners, if
it's made here, you can probably find it there, although often at an
exorbitant price.

Loopholes carved into the embargo in recent years have helped make the
United States Cuba's top supplier of food and agricultural products and
its fifth-largest trading partner.

• A persistent campaign by farm-state Republicans and business interests
to junk the embargo has shifted its focus to chipping away at it piece
by piece.

Their probable next target: the rule that prevents Americans not of
Cuban descent from traveling to Cuba as tourists. Longtime opponents of
the embargo have filed three bills this year that would do just that.
Advocates insist the idea has gained traction -- and the backing of a
diverse coalition of groups ranging from the American Farm Bureau to the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Human Rights Watch.

``The theory is that travel is the thread that will unravel the whole
sweater of the embargo,'' said Dan Erickson, a senior associate at the
Inter-American Dialogue and author of The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the
United States, and the Next Revolution.

Embargo supporters say the same people have tried the same thing before
and failed.

• The network of ``mules'' who illegally sneak goods or money into Cuba,
often concealed on their bodies, has exploded since 2004, when the Bush
administration tightened the screws on delivering goods to Cuba. Armando
Garcia, president of Marazul Charters, which flies to Cuba, called it a
``huge parallel industry.'' Serafín Blanco, who runs a store in Hialeah
that caters to exiles, said he can tell who is a mule by what items they
buy and how many.

• Hard-line older Cuban exiles who have applauded past moves to bolster
the embargo are becoming a smaller segment of the Cuban-American
community. They still have clout -- witness last year's reelection of
embargo champions Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother Mario to Congress
despite formidable opposition -- but their ability to swing Florida's 27
electoral votes may be waning.

Some of those aging exiles are now taking advantage of Obama's olive
branch to the island to go home for a visit. Among recent travelers:
Nildo Herrera, who wore five hats as he waited in the terminal to board
a Cuba-bound plane at Miami International Airport.

``One is for my grandson, another for my son, and the rest for other
relatives,'' said the 75-year-old from Hialeah.


There is anecdotal evidence that the administration is allowing greater
academic and cultural travel to Cuba, said Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst
at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., and a supporter of lifting
the embargo.

Peters noted that a Florida-based student debate organization, USA Youth
Debates, recently obtained a license from the Treasury Department to
allow American students into Cuba early next year.

A five-day trade mission to Cuba by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that
wrapped up on Friday renewed speculation about the administration's
intentions. After Obama eased the restriction on exiles traveling to the
island -- and gave U.S. telecom firms wide latitude to do business on
the island, Cuba permitting -- he said the next move is Cuba's.

``We think it's important to see progress on issues of political
liberalization, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, release of
political prisoners in order for there to be the full possibility of
normalization between our two countries,'' he said in a July interview.

From all outward indications, he's still waiting.

Richardson, a supporter of increased travel to Cuba, called the current
atmosphere ``the best I've seen for an improvement'' in U.S.-Cuba ties.

``What is needed is concrete steps from both sides,'' said the
diplomatic troubleshooter, who did not meet with either Fidel or Raúl
Castro but did talk with Ricardo Alarcón, head of Cuba's parliament.

Richardson said he would present a report about his visit to the Obama

The recent resignation of Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, an influential
Republican, staunch supporter of the embargo and one of two Cuban
Americans in the Senate, was a political blow to the pro-embargo forces.
On Friday, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed his former chief of staff,
George LeMieux, to keep the seat warm until Crist himself can run in 2010.

Crist and other leading contenders for Martinez's seat -- Republican
former House Speaker Marco Rubio and Democrat Rep. Kendrick Meek --
advocate keeping the embargo intact.

Lost in the argument over what the United States might do is the fact
that change is a two-way street. Cuba can say thank you, but no, we
don't want to do business with you.

``What the Cuban government wants is more American tourists,'' said
Mauricio Claver-Carone, board member with the politically influential
U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a pro-embargo group that contributed $452,000
to Democrats and $308,500 to Republicans in 2008. ``It's an easy source
of financing, and they control that commodity.''

What the Cubans don't want is a flood of American fast-food franchises,
particularly ones run by Cuban exiles. Over the years, Fidel Castro has
railed against the embargo -- called a blockade on the island --
whenever he needed to deflect blame for the island's chronic shortages.


If Obama were to announce he was lifting the embargo immediately,
``Fidel would sink an American ship or shoot down a plane, or do
whatever he could to stop it,'' said attorney Pedro Freyre, who
represents companies with licenses to do business in Cuba.

That won't be necessary if U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her fellow
Republican lawmaker, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, have their way. Diaz-Balart
pushed successfully to give Congress, not the White House, final say
over the policy. And Ros-Lehtinen's position as top Republican on the
House Foreign Affairs committee is a strategic perch.

Both lawmakers expected a fight over travel to Cuba in mid-July when
Congress took up the annual spending bill for the U.S. Treasury
Department. Because it provides funding to enforce sanctions, the bill
has traditionally served as the vehicle for trying to undermine the policy.

That fight never materialized.

``We were prepared,'' Lincoln Diaz-Balart said. ``No matter how much
they (embargo critics) talk, no matter how many press conferences they
hold, the bottom line is they don't have the votes.''

Some of those who support lifting the travel ban say they're girding for
a more significant victory when Congress returns from its August recess.

Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has long argued that the
United States shouldn't dictate where Americans can travel, said he and
his allies want to push the proposal on its own, not as an amendment in
the larger Treasury bill.

``It's a reflection of greater confidence that we believe we can do
more,'' Flake said. ``We'd rather win on the merits.''

But it is unclear how much enthusiasm congressional leaders will have
for a bruising battle over Cuba when they have yet to close the deal on
such contentious Obama administration priorities as healthcare reform
and climate change.

Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat and critic of the embargo,
believes his side has the stomach and win.

``You have an administration that wants to engage,'' he said. ``The
pieces are coming together.''

Ros-Lehtinen acknowledges increased interest, but says advocates of a
thaw are dreaming if they think they can undo the half-century-old policy.

``When have they not been for lifting the embargo, the travel ban? When
have they not said, `This is the year'?''

Miami Herald staff writers Alfonso Chardy, Jim Wyss and Frances Robles
and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Cuba trade ban stands despite rising efforts to end it - Cuba - (29 August 2009)

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