Hopes for modifying U.S. Cuba policy, seen by many as quite possible during the last Congress only a few months ago, have been decisively set back. Several factors are involved. Most notable were the sudden arrests and sentencing of dozens of peaceful Cuban dissidents, many of them activists with the Catholic-inspired Varela Project, and the summary execution of three ferryboat hijackers.
The Cuban crackdown began last March and since then bellicose rhetoric has escalated on both sides. The U.S. has expelled Cuban diplomats, the Treasury Department has proposed eliminating exemption for non-degree related educational travel to Cuba, and the bilateral migration agreement of 1995 providing for the orderly departure of up to 20,000 Cubans to settle here annually is in jeopardy. As of now, only a fraction of visa applications for last year were processed, due partly to the stringent new requirements of Homeland Security but also due to an apparent slowdown policy.
The Travel Ban
Up until the events of March, 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. Through last fall, 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.
To avoid a presidential veto, an amendment to deny the Treasury Department funds to enforce the travel ban was attached to the $90 billion spending bill for the Transportation and Treasury departments. Both houses had voted to adopt the amendment, 59-36 in the Senate and 227-188 in the House. In late October, Bishop Ricard wrote to Senator Frist, urging him not to allow “the will of majorities in both houses from being frustrated again. In November, however, the amendment was stripped from the bill in a late night session of the conference committee.
The reason was clear. President Bush had threatened to veto the entire bill if the Cuba travel language stayed in and the foes of the amendment succeeded in putting that issue off for another time.
The Holy Father, 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 has 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: (see e.g., Cuba Updates February 2003 and August 2002, Cardinal Law statements July 12, 2000 and September 27, 1999)
- 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 both as to food and basic healthcare.
- The Church in Cuba is unalterably opposed to the embargo, as are most of the political dissidents.
In contacts with your Senators or Representative, urge their support for new efforts by the Senate Cuba Working Group headed by Sens. Baucus and Enzi and the House Cuba Working Group headed by Reps. Delahunt and Flake to lift the travel bans. Stress the importance of finally, sooner rather than later, getting rid of a Cuba policy that is outmoded, unproductive and morally unjustified. We should be clear that, whatever motives others may have for ending the embargo, we are not advocating a softer stance toward Castro, or looking for an illusory reconciliation with the present regime, as some who oppose any change assert.
For further information: Tom Quigley 202-541-3184 (ph); 202-541-3339 (fax); firstname.lastname@example.org, or Kathy Brown, Catholic Relief Services, (410) 951-7232, email@example.com.