This was to be the year that Congress would finally enact some changes in the Cuba sanctions regime. On July 25, the House voted 240-186 to end enforcement of the ban on travel to Cuba. In another vote the same day, 201 Members voted for a Rangel amendment that would end enforcement of the embargo altogether, and while it did not pass, it garnered a couple dozen more votes than a similar measure had last year. These signs carried some momentum which could have resulted in real changes on the travel, food, and medicines restrictions.
Then came September 11. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) had prepared to introduce an amendment to the Treasury/Postal Appropriations bill that would allow U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba by denying funding to enforce the ban. He was particularly exercised over increased enforcement of the ban on travel by the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). He famously cited the case of a retired woman—an avid cyclist—who responded to a magazine ad to bicycle in Cuba with a Canadian travel company. A year and a half later, she got a letter from OFAC levying a $7,650 fine for riding with the Canadian group in Cuba.
"I fully intended," the Senator said, "to offer an amendment to this bill to stop that. OFAC ought to be about tracking terrorists, not tracking down retired ladies who ride bicycles in Cuba." But he finally withheld the amendment, as Congress is generally putting off controversial legislation and focusing on essential counter-terrorism issues.
So, for the time being, Cuba is on the back burner. Nevertheless, we ask that you keep the issue in mind in your contacts with your Senators and Representatives, urging them to support future legislation that would lift travel restrictions to Cuba as well as allow unrestricted sale of food and medicines. These humanitarian concerns have become even more urgent following the devastation that Hurricane Michelle caused to the country's crops just this month.
Our basic message on the Cuba embargo over the years has made the following points:
- The principal effect of 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—especially for paying tourists, but the average poor Cuban—a majority—suffer real and constant deprivation, lacking in both food and basic healthcare.
- The Catholic Church in Cuba is unalterably opposed to the embargo. Most of the known political dissidents also oppose it.
- Getting that issue off the table could clear the way for the more constructive dialogue and eventual negotiation that must eventually take place.
- "The Catholic Bishops of Cuba are under no illusion that the end of the sanctions imposed by our government will usher in a time of economic prosperity for their people. They do know, however, that retaining the sanctions continues to hurt only the most vulnerable sectors of that society, and provides the regime with propaganda advantages it does not deserve ."
- In his historic visit to Cuba in 1998, Pope John Paul II characterized "the economic measures imposed from outside the country, [that is, the United States embargo against Cuba], as ‘both unjust and morally unacceptable.' It is time to leave aside a policy that, whatever moral justification it may once have had, has clearly outlived its purpose."
In any contact you may have with your Senators or Representative, please continue to stress the importance of finally—and sooner rather than later—getting rid of a Cuba sanction 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 Cuban Church and other parts of civil society, of the routine violations of human rights, and limitations on freedom of speech and assembly. Neither growing international pressure, nor even the Holy Father's visit, has succeeded in directly changing those conditions. But a bold U.S. initiative could succeed in turning a failed policy that serves the interests only of the regime into a humane, morally justified and, ultimately, politically sensible policy.