Cuba and Congress: Who Will Change First?

San Cristobal of Havana Cathedral. In 1958, Hilton Hotels proudly opened the tallest and largest hotel in Latin America, the Havana Hilton, located in the heart of Havana, Cuba. Boasting a casino, an outdoor swimming pool, and a panoramic view of Havana from its rooftop nightclub and bar located atop 25 stories of five-star accommodation, this luxurious destination was only open to Americans for two years.

When Fidel Castro assumed power and the relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated at the peak of Cold War tensions, this American hotel changed both name and nationality, becoming Hotel Tryp Habana Libre. By 1962, Washington had imposed full economic sanctions against Cuba, which to this day continue to debilitate the Cuban economy and prohibit U.S. tourists and investors from travelling to the island. Today, the formerly U.S. hotel only rarely hosts U.S. visitors.

However, despite the ailments of old age, Fidel Castro and his brother remain relatively unscathed. After 48 years, the debate about whether it is time for a new direction in U.S.-Cuban relations continues. This time, however, Congress might weigh in on the side of détente, and Cuban voices have been brought into the mix.

The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (HR 4645) introduced on February 23, 2010 would finally allow Americans to travel to Cuba and ease restrictions on agricultural exports to the island. Although the bill narrowly passed the House Agriculture Committee by a 25-20 vote on June 30, it still must go through the House Financial Services Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee before reaching the House floor. At this moment, the bill has 71 cosponsors, 61 of which are Democrats. Republicans favoring the bill include Reps. Judy Biggert (IL), Charles Boustany (LA), Jo Ann Emerson (MO), and Jeff Flake (AZ). “I was elected to be a Member of Congress, not a travel agent,” said Flake to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in support of a similar bill (HR 874) in November 2009. “Americans should be able to travel wherever they want. They don’t need our advice and shouldn’t have to seek our permission.”

However, one hardliner seeking to maintain the status quo is New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez. Together with his colleague in the House, Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), the two Cuban-American Democrats have publically expressed staunch opposition to easing U.S. policy toward Cuba. In reference to HR 4645, Menendez argues that the bill “would enrich a regime that denies its own people basic human rights.” The junior senator has even threatened to filibuster the bill if it reaches the Senate floor.

Close but No (Cuban) Cigar

There have been many congressional attempts to remove roadblocks in the U.S.-Cuban relationship, but none has yet become law. On February 4, 2009, Rep. Mike Delahunt (D-MA) introduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (H.R. 874). The initiative, which currently stagnates at 181 cosponsors, was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and no action has been taken since. The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2007 similarly died in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations after being read twice. Before this attempt, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Flake introduced the Export Freedom to Cuba Act of 2007 (H.R. 654), which never came to a vote after being referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs on January 24, 2007.

The latest bill, HR 4645, faces an equally uphill battle. Of the listed initiatives, however, it is the only one that has reached any sort of vote. Two similar bills introduced in the Senate, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (S.3112) and the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (S.428), have both been referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

These efforts have been aimed at dismantling a policy that the United States has maintained from the Kennedy administration to the present. Hoping to depose the regime of Fidel Castro, the United States has continued the Cuban trade embargo for almost half a century, insisting that the Cuban government democratize and demonstrate a commitment to human rights before diplomatic and economic relations between the two countries can be reestablished. Last year, the Obama administration eased travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and reversed the limitations on remittances imposed by the previous president. Nevertheless, The New Yorker reported that “the Administration has made it clear that sanctions will remain in place until Cuba takes definite steps towards further democratization, and improves its human-rights record — a key element of which would be the freeing of its political prisoners.” Since July 12, Cuba has begun releasing some of its political prisoners including Normando Hernandez, who told BBC News that this is a ploy by the Cuban government to garner international attention. Overall, a total of 52 prisoners are expected be released in the upcoming months.

Whether this is a turning point for Cuba or a diplomatic chess move is hard to tell. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, has called the releases a “positive sign,” Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights in Havana referred to the measure as a “political decision of the Cuban government, taken for short-term political motives, to have an immediate effect overseas, not in Cuba itself.” William LeoGrande, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University and a specialist in U.S. policy toward Latin America, sees this as an “extremely important” move, partially done in order to improve Cuba’s relationship with the European Union and to test Washington’s response.

However, the decision to release political prisoners was not the product of political transformation. The only semblance of change has been the seamless shift in presidency from Fidel to his younger brother Raúl Castro in 2008. Policy-wise, the fact that Cuba has remained the same illustrates the futility of the embargo. Nevertheless, it has been effective in other ways. The policy originally intended to challenge the leadership of Fidel Castro has made life more problematic for the Cuban people.

Punishing the People

Nearly 50 years of sanctions have taken their toll on the Cuban economy. According to Stephen Wilkinson, assistant director of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba in London, the United States is the natural market for Cuban products. “Sanctions have been a huge brake on Cuban economic development,” he says. “The country is starved of capital.” The Cuban government estimates that the monetary loss to Cuba due to the embargo is approximately $685 million per annum, though total non-monetary costs for the society may be much higher.

The consequences of the embargo are pervasive throughout Cuban society, felt in local businesses as well as in hospitals. Wilkinson, who has been travelling to Cuba since 1986, explains that the embargo prevents Cuba from acquiring certain medical materials, diagnostic equipment, and pharmaceuticals that can only be obtained from U.S. companies. This has made the diagnosis and treatment of certain pediatric cancers very difficult. For instance, Cuba has been unable to obtain isotope I-125 for the treatment of childhood eye cancer. In an article for The Guardian, Wilkinson recalls having “seen the cancer wards in a Havana hospital where children with leukemia were vomiting 16 hours per day for lack of these drugs.”

Yet despite the nearly 50-year lifespan of this crippling policy, there is surprisingly little anti-American sentiment among the Cuban people. From his experiences travelling to Cuba since 1976, Canadian professor John Kirk says that “there is a feeling of respect for the American people and despair at the inability of 10 U.S. governments to normalize relations with Cuba. It is important to note, however, that there is a clear distinction made between the U.S. government and the U.S. people — despite the impact of 50 years of hostility.” When asked about anti-American sentiment in Cuba, Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow Chris Oechsli had a similar reply: “As an American in Cuba I never felt uncomfortable with anybody at anytime.”

Cuban, American, and International Consensus

In Cuba, pro-democracy leaders and peace activists are now pushing for Congress to lift the travel ban. On May 30, a group of 74 leading members of Cuba’s civil society sent a letter to the members of Congress urging passage of HR 4645. Among the signatories are bloggers Yoani Sánchez and Claudia Cadelo de Nevis, the co-founder of the dissident group Ladies in White Miriam Leiva, and Guillermo Farinas, a democracy activist who recently ended a three-month hunger strike protesting the Cuban regime. Collectively, the activists argue that the presence of U.S. visitors on the streets would strengthen Cuban civil society while continued “isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government.” They also mention that “to further facilitate the sale of agricultural products would help alleviate the food shortages we now suffer.” Referring to the letter, Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said that “when the strongest pro-democracy activists in Cuba say that the current travel and agriculture trade restrictions only support the Castro regime, you have to ask yourself why we would keep these restrictions in place.” In a 2005 meeting with Wayne Smith, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, the president of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón also expressed that Cubans are “interested in having normal relations and having the embargo lifted.”

But it is not just the Cuban people who would like to see a change in the status quo. A WorldPublicOpinion.org study conducted March 25–April 6, 2009 revealed that of the 765 adult Americans surveyed, a 59 percent majority found that it is “time to try a new approach to Cuba, because Cuba may be ready for a change.” An even greater 69 percent of the public favored re-establishing diplomatic ties with the country and 70 percent endorsed the measure to lift travel restrictions to the country. By maintaining the embargo, the United States continues to isolate itself from the international community. In October 2003, Alternatives Action and Communication Network for International Development, a Canadian-based NGO, compiled votes of the UN General Assembly from 1992-2002 on the “necessity to lift the blockade against Cuba.” During that 10-year period, only the United States, Israel, Uzbekistan, Paraguay, Albania, and the Marshall Islands have opposed lifting the embargo. However, only the United States and Israel have been consistent in their voting.

Small Steps toward Change

The possible short and long-term impacts of lifting the travel ban are debatable. Repealing travel restrictions would open Cuba up to American tourists willing to spend large sums of money on their vacations. Among the arguments in favor of this measure, the notion that tourism will pump money into the Cuban economy while simultaneously creating American jobs is perhaps the least contentious. According to William LeoGrande, the principal impact of the embargo is felt in Cuba’s tourist industry, as that is the centerpiece of the Cuban economy. “Travel has a direct impact on the standard of living of ordinary people,” he maintains. When tourists leave tips at restaurants, stay at local nightly accommodations, take cab rides, and buy locally crafted souvenirs, “they engage with the non-state sector of the economy.”

However, tourism is more than just a major contributor to the Cuban economy. From his experiences travelling to Cuba since 1976, John Kirk, an expert on Cuban-Canadian relations, explains that tourism “has been useful in showing Cubans alternative modes of living, consumption patterns, and ideas,” says Kirk. Stephen Wilkinson also sees the transformative potential of tourism, which could bring in a lot of revenue and raise living standards. “Improvement in the economy would entice those who have emigrated to the United States to return to Cuba and they would bring back with them their wealth, savings, and new skills, and this in turn will have a positive effect,” he predicts. “Once Cuba becomes wealthier it will be able to afford the luxury of a more liberal democratic system. In this way maybe reform could come through the lifting of the travel ban.” Additionally, a repeal of travel restrictions would open the door for study abroad programs and valued educational and cultural exchanges.

On a larger scale, lifting the embargo in its entirety would invite not only U.S. tourists to Cuba, but also American investors and corporations seeking new locations. Chris Oechsli agrees that an influx of foreign capital alongside new economic opportunities and ideas could potentially weaken state control of the economy. In turn, this could trigger economic development and the potential for innovation. But even if this prediction is wrong, “opening travel from the point of view of improving the standard of living of ordinary Cubans is the right thing to do,” says William LeoGrande.

This shift in foreign policy would likely produce domestic outcomes. In a letter to the president, representatives of a dozen leading U.S. business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, estimated the cost to the U.S. economy at $1.2 billion per year. In terms of lost agricultural sales and exports, the Cuba Policy Foundation in 2002 estimated a total loss of $4.84 billion. Many believe that the embargo has not worked, including Sarah Stephens, executive director of the D.C.-based advocacy group Center for Democracy in the Americas. She argues that “by increasing food exports and repealing the travel ban, this legislation will provide more jobs for Americans and Cubans.” In fact according to a March 2010 study by Texas A&M University, “loosening export and travel restrictions to Cuba could spark $365 million in sales of U.S. goods and create 6,000 new jobs in the United States, leading to a $1.1 billion economic impact.” A 2002 CPF commissioned study by the University of Colorado estimated that lifting the embargo after five years would result in a domestic gain of $1.9 billion and 12,000 new jobs, many in the travel sector.

Lifting the travel ban would certainly have economic impact, but its political influence is more difficult to gauge. The Cuba Study Group, a DC-based nonprofit organization of business and community leaders of Cuban descent dedicated to facilitating democratic change in Cuba, argues that in isolating Cuba, the United States has “hindered its ability, and that of the émigré community, to play a constructive role in Cuba’s inevitable future processes of change.” Although proponents of the embargo argue that international tourism has had no impact on social change movements in Cuba, an influx of American tourists and capital may empower local institutions, businesses, and organizations both financially and through sheer geographic proximity. “The biggest source of tourism for the Caribbean is the United States,” says LeoGrande, “but this market is currently closed to Cuba.”

Ultimately, externally enforced political change can rarely be sustained internally. As such, a successful political transformation of Cuba must result from internal changes. On both sides of the embargo debate, people are eager to see Cuba change. Even Cuban dissidents are ready for the United States to adopt a new policy. The question remains: Is Congress ready to change?

Anna Kalinina is an intern for Foreign Policy In Focus.