From Poder Magazine, February 2009
Will there be any Cuba policy change to believe in this year? No Mucho
By Kirk Nielsen
After last November’s presidential election, one of my fellow Cuba policy geeks started fantasizing. Barack Obama would stand at the presidential podium and announce that the United States was planning to return the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay to the Republic of Cuba. He would say he was instructing U.S. officials to commence talks with the Cubans to work out the details. In the meantime, Gitmo would morph from a creepy military prison into a big training camp for young civilian volunteers eager to rebuild areas of Cuba devastated by, say, more than its fair share of hurricanes.
Thus was the reverie that sociologist Max Castro unloosed in a post-election column for the Miami-based website Progreso Weekly. “My thought was that a) closing the detention camp; b) demilitarizing the area c) dedicating it initially for a humanitarian purpose, and d) announcing the intention to return it to Cuba would send an unmistakable message,” he explained in a recent email to me. The message: that the United States was “crafting a new foreign policy transcending the old imperialism (how the base was acquired in the first place) and the new imperial lawlessness (exemplified by the outrages committed in Gitmo as part of the terror war).”
It’s truly a great and wholesome fantasy. But let’s get real for a couple of minutes. Before any meaningful talk about Gitmo devolution could start, the Obama Administration would have to clear out the expensive prison that the U.S. military and private contractors built there post-September 11, 2001 to hold suspected terrorists. Obama has indicated he intends to close the prison down. But the legal and logistical morass of moving its 200 or so inmates to non-military prisons in the U.S. or other countries could easily take all year. Only then could Obama Administration seriously consider closing down the military base altogether, a process that could take several more years.
In 2009, dreamers of a U.S.-Cuba reconciliation will be lucky to see more than a lifting of restrictions on visits and remittances to relatives in Cuba. That’s all Obama promised to do if elected, and he can lift them by executive order, without Congressional involvement. In similar fashion, he could also end Bush’s ban on sending soap and other household goods to Cuba.
To dismantle the trade embargo, however, will require at least one act of Congress. And despite the big new Democratic majority in Washington, D.C., embargo opponents might not have the necessary votes, according to one of the most knowledgeable Cuba policy techies on Capitol Hill (who insists on anonymity).
Over the years, the House of Representatives has passed bills to lift the travel ban and trade sanctions, only to see the legislation die in the hands of the Senate. That’s ironic because opinion polls have long shown that a vast majority of Americans oppose restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba. More recently, polls have shown that even most Cuban-Americans now oppose them.
But on Capitol Hill support for the trade and travel sanctions has, oddly, increased in recent years. Any explanation must include the U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which since 2003 has spent about $3 million to keep members of Congress voting against the wishes of the American public with regard to Cuba. Roughly half of that money has gone to Democrats.
No one knows whether sponsors of new legislation to lift the travel ban will be able to muster enough support even in this more Democratically-controlled Congress. And they won’t even begin to know for many months, while House members are mired in budget, appropriations, stimulus, and bailout bills—to the exclusion of parochial matters like Cuba policy. So, Americans who fancy rum and fun on the island’s breathtaking Varadero Beach—or a brand new Gitmo retrofitted for humanitarian purposes—are going to have to dream on.