Showdown on Cuba policy not over yet

Campaign News | Tuesday, 3 March 2009

From the Miami Herald

Facing strong opposition from lawmakers with large Cuban-American constituencies, the Obama administration pledged -- in writing -- that changes to U.S.-Cuba policy tucked into the giant 2009 spending bill will have no teeth.

The promise worked: Lawmakers Tuesday night approved the $410 billion spending bill, which included the controversial provisions that make travel and trade to Cuba easier by cutting off the funding for enforcement of restrictions.

It cleared the Senate by a voice vote, after senators voted 62 to 35 to end debate.

In a quest to secure two of the votes from senators who had vowed to block the entire budget bill, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner assured Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey that the government would interpret the new law so strictly that it will be ineffective.

Geithner's letter to the two senators persuaded them to change their votes and approve the spending package. Rep. José E. Serrano, the New York Democrat who wrote the Cuba amendments in the bill, warned that the law is not subject to "creative interpretation" and vowed ``a showdown."

"The Treasury Department is going to try [to find loopholes], and the [House] appropriations committee will have to remind them who Congress is," Serrano told The Miami Herald. ``Treasury will be in violation of the law. There will be a showdown. The bigger issue will not be Congressman Serrano. It will be that they are behaving just like the Bush administration did."

The budget bill, which already passed the House, creates a general travel license for Americans who want to travel to Cuba to cut agricultural and medical sales deals with the communist government. It also lets Cuba pay for goods on arrival -- instead of before the products leave U.S. ports -- and removes funding for enforcement of family travel restrictions enacted by former President George W. Bush.

Geithner wrote that the agricultural travel license would be limited to "only a narrow class of businesses," which would have to report back on their trips. By law, he said, Cuba would still have to pay up front.

Left intact in the bill, which expires in October, is a measure that suspends enforcement of rules that say Cuban Americans can only visit immediate relatives once every three years. Travel to the island would still be illegal, but the department wouldn't be allowed to spend money trying to catch anyone doing it.

"The assurances I have received from Secretary Geithner allayed my most significant concerns," said Menendez, who voted in favor of the bill.

In letters to Menendez and Nelson, Geithner sought to distance the administration from the changes and assure them that few of the provisions will actually change U.S.-Cuba policy.

Geithner acknowledged that U.S.-Cuba policy is under review to determine ``the best way to foster democratic change in Cuba and improve the lives of the Cuban people."

"Your views and the views of others on Capitol Hill will be important to that review," he wrote. ``And the president remains committed to consulting with you as we consider changes to Cuba policy."

The administration's apparent willingness to buck the intent of Congress surprised many Cuba-watchers. Both sides cast the final vote as a victory, because Obama backed down from the toughest new provisions -- but he also got opponents to leave the family travel amendments untouched.

'The senators have this letter from Treasury saying, `We're not going to follow this,' but six months from now, will [Obama administration officials] remember that letter, or are they going to follow the law?" said Carlos Gutiérrez, former secretary of commerce under Bush. ``Treasury is going to have to follow the letter of the law."

Geithner's letter opened the administration up to the same criticism Obama has lobbed at Bush, who used presidential "signing statements" to declare that he would interpret legislative provisions his way.

Asked about the practice Tuesday at the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said: ``It's like a presidential signing statement, except it's not the president, and it's not a signing statement."

Activists who oppose travel restrictions are still unhappy with the bill, because it does not legalize family travel.

"What Congress is doing is creating a class of criminals," said Alvaro Fernández, chairman of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights. 'It's like saying, `It's OK to go to 7-Eleven and steal, because nobody will enforce it.' It's insulting."

Francisco Aruca, who owns a company that books charters to Cuba, said people will have to go through third countries, because travel agencies are not going to book the trips, even if the restrictions are not enforced. They also fear that when the law expires in six months, the government can go back and investigate past trips.

He and other advocates stressed that Obama has yet to act on a campaign promise to lift the rules that prohibit Cuban Americans from visiting more frequently.

``It's interesting that most of the opposition was to the agricultural travel, which shows that they are slowly coming to realize that the family travel restriction was a mistake."

Others cast it as a victory for the Cuban exile lobby.

"The administration has heard that there are people who prioritize this issue, to whom it is deeply personal," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a Washington lobbyist who opposes change to U.S. policy.

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