Hopes for modifying U.S. Cuba policy, seen by many as highly likely during the present Congress only a few weeks 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. Much of the world was shocked by these unforeseen events, causing some in the Congress to forego planned efforts to lift present restrictions.
The Cuban crackdown began in March just as the Iraq war did, leading some to think Castro expects a regime change-minded U.S. to have Cuba on its short list. 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 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 this year have been processed, due partly to the stringent new requirements of Homeland Security but also due to an apparent slowdown policy.
Up until the events of March, expectations of reversing the decades-old Cuba sanctions policy were high as 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. At this time, the main attention in the Congress is on the travel question. Allowing Americans free access to visit the island and interact with the Cuban people is seen as an important means of advancing the goals of a non-violent transition to a more open and free Cuban society.
On May 14, a bipartisan group of legislators from both chambers of Congress announced proposals to lift the travel restrictions. Led by Sens. Max Baucus (D-MO) and Michael Enzi (R-WY) in the Senate and by Reps. William Delahunt (D-MA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in the House, they propose to attach an amendment to larger legislation later on in order to lessen the prospect of a White House veto. This remains the best chance to correct a flawed and outmoded U.S. policy.
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 Churchs commitment to the path of dialogue.
Our basic message over the years has made the following points: (see e.g., 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 any contacts you have with your Senators or Representative, urge their support for the 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.
We are well aware of the many limitations on the freedom of the Church and other parts of civil society, of the increasing violations of human rights, and limitations on freedom of speech and assembly. Neither international pressure, nor the Holy Father(s visit, has succeeded in changing conditions which appear now to be worsening. To forestall the disastrous confrontation that some here seem to favor, we seek to turn a failed policy that serves the interests only of the Castro regime into a humane, morally justified and politically sensible one.