(Update June 2005)
That Cuba, with all of its magnificent possibilities, open up to the world and that the world open itself to Cuba. John Paul II, Papal Visit to Cuba, January 1998
Hopes for modifying U.S. Cuba policy, seen by many as quite possible during the last Congress, have once again been frustrated by the House leadership. Despite majority votes in both houses in support of lifting certain provisions of the embargo, especially affecting travel to Cuba, the Administration has indicated its firm opposition to any changes. The report of the President’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, issued last May, further tightens these restrictions.
Several factors behind the new hard line are involved. Among them were the sudden arrests and sentencing in the spring of 2003 of dozens of peaceful Cuban dissidents, many of them activists with the Catholic-inspired Varela Project, plus the summary execution of three ferryboat hijackers.
The U.S. has expelled Cuban diplomats, the Treasury Department has eliminated exemption for non-degree related educational travel to Cuba, the bilateral migration agreement of 1995, providing for the orderly departure of up to 20,000 Cubans to settle here annually, is in jeopardy, and Cubans in this country are severely restricted as to their travel to Cuba and what they can send to their families there.
The Travel Ban
Up until the events of March 2003 and now the 2004 Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, expectations of reversing the decades-old Cuba sanctions policy were high. Votes in both houses clearly pointed to lifting restrictions in three areas: the sale of food and medicines, the right of U.S. citizens to travel, and the amount Cubans in this country can send to their families on the island. Throughout last year, the main attention in the Congress was on the travel question. Allowing Americans free access to visit the island and interact with the Cuban people is seen by advocates as an important means of advancing the goals of a non-violent transition to a more open and free Cuban society.
In his letter to President Bush of May 14, 2004, criticizing especially the new travel restrictions, USCCB President Bishop Gregory noted: “Over the many years of the embargo, it has failed to achieve its goals of unseating the Castro government, restoring democracy and protecting human rights. In fact, the embargo hurts the ordinary people of Cuba… The additional restrictions proposed by the Commission—limiting Cuban-American family visits and the amount of money they can send to Cuba—will only exacerbate the situation within the country.”
Pope John Paul II, the Cuban Bishops, and the USCCB have strongly denounced the Cuban crackdown on peaceful dissent and the unwarranted use of the death penalty (see “Statement on Arrest of Cuban Dissidents” by Bishop John Ricard, April 7, 2003). The Pope asked for leniency for the jailed dissidents and renewed the Church’s commitment to the path of dialogue.
Our basic message over the years has made the following points:
- The principal effect of the U.S. embargo is to strengthen Castro’s control, providing the basis for his constant denunciation of the U.S., blaming Cuba’s genuine shortages of medicines and food on the embargo, instead of on a failed economic system and the end of Soviet subsidies.
- Dollar-laden tourists and the party faithful live well enough, and Cuba is a world leader in certain areas of medicine for paying tourists, but the average poor Cuban--a majority--suffers real and constant deprivation of both food and basic healthcare.
- The Church in Cuba is unalterably opposed to the embargo, as are most of the political dissidents.
After years of efforts to chip away at the embargo, including numerous USCCB letters to the Congress, both houses of Congress voted last year to end restrictions on travel, remittances Cubans here can send home, and financing of sales of food and medicines. Despite clear Congressional intent, the leadership stripped away this language in conference to maintain the status quo. Following the arrest and sentencing of some 75 dissidents, many of them Catholics associated with the Varela Project of Oswaldo Payá, Bishop Ricard issued a statement condemning the increased repression while reiterating the USCCB call for ending the embargo. In May 2004, following President Bush’s acceptance of the report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba that called for further tightening of the US embargo, Bishop Gregory wrote President Bush reiterating USCCB disagreement with the policy. In July, Bishop Ricard wrote to the Cuba Working Groups of the House and Senate to encourage their efforts to roll back the new restrictions. Several of the dissidents have been released, mainly for health reasons.
In contacts with your Senators and Representative, urge their support for efforts to relax the travel limitations for visits by families here to their family members in Cuba. Ask their support for legislative efforts by the Senate and House Cuba Working Groups to end an economic embargo that is morally unacceptable and politically counterproductive. As Bishop Gregory pointed out, the goals of improving the lot of the Cuban people and encouraging the democratization of the governance of Cuba are best accomplished through greater rather than less contact between the Cuban and American people.
For further information: Tom Quigley 202-541-3184 (ph); 202-541-3339 (fax); email@example.com