Elections and Cuba policy: Don’t take this lying down

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We expect you have been pondering the impact of the recent elections on the work we have been doing together to end the travel ban on Cuba and move our two countries toward a respectful, humane relationship. We have been doing the same, and we want to share some thoughts with you.

The electoral outcome has left us, as they say, “Close, but no cigar.”  (We could skip the cigar  . . .  although a mojito, maybe two, could help after working so hard these past couple of years.)

The events of the mid-term election have drastically affected the immediate political climate here on Capitol Hill. One of the results, we are very sorry to say, is that, due to this shift in power and the current atmosphere on Capitol Hill, it is unlikely that H.R. 4645 will be considered in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yet this year, as had been the plan and expectation. While the bill won in the House Agriculture Committee, garnered impressive support both in Congress and out, and has backing across the political spectrum (what other legislation is endorsed both by Ron Paul and by Barbara Lee? Or by the Chamber of Commerce and Witness for Peace?), it’s not going to move ahead before this Congress adjourns in December.

In the longer term, we face challenges as well. The results of November 2nd do not favor increased engagement with Cuba; in fact, we are worried that we will have to defend against nasty moves to tighten and retrench (coming out of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will now chair in the new Congress). You’ve probably read some of the analyses (here and here) about what this will mean. We think some of these pieces are overly grim. We’re certainly not ready to throw in the towel for the next two years. We are continuing to work with allies to brainstorm ideas on how to re-invent our campaign to “End the Travel Ban on Cuba,” continue the momentum gained by your good work in support of HR 4645, and successfully navigate within the new political reality.

While we can be temporarily thwarted by the upheaval and removal from the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate of many supporters of ending the ban on travel to Cuba, we will not be satisfied by the status quo, and we won’t become inactive.

In the short term, the White House and President Obama need to hear from us all. Congress heard YOUR voice among thousands of other Americans that want their right to travel to Cuba restored.
Now, we must translate this demand and this voice into a message that the White House can understand. The rumored new travel regulations that we all hoped would be announced in August by President Obama never materialized; political considerations got in the way (a serious miscalculation, in our opinion). HR 4645 created tremendous momentum in Congress and would have provided more than enough space for the President to act. He didn’t.

Now, it is up to the President to show leadership and announce new regulations on people-to-people travel (cultural, educational, religious, sports, and more) that extend to the full breadth of his authority. And he does have authority to really make a difference in our right to travel. A general license provision would be nice, don’t you think – as the President rightly provided for our Cuban-American friends? He needs to demonstrate to citizens of this nation and to the Congress the direction that he wants this policy to take, the direction that the great majority of U.S. citizens want this policy to take, the direction that the majority of Cuban Americans want this policy to take. And without delay.

This would not be all that we want, or all that we have worked for.
But it would move us in the direction of ending the travel ban for all of us by sending the right message to all of you who have been working so long to reclaim your rights. We know that a presidential executive order easing travel does not resolve our issue, but it does help. We know that only the Congress can actually, by law, end the ban on travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens. That still must happen. But, let’s take this step now. U.S. policy towards Cuba should not be dictated by the aged voices of the minority; that’s not how democracy works. We need to make President Obama aware that a different majority opinion exists. That Florida is also not comprised solely of pro-embargo Cuban Americans. That with expanding travel rights only for Cuban Americans, he is also disenfranchising the rest of his citizens. We will not accept that. 

We see two steps that we can take now:

(1) Please call the White House today (202-456-1111) and leave a brief message asking the President to issue general travel licenses for all people-to-people travel to Cuba. Ask him to open travel to Cuba to the full extent of his authority under the law. Now.
(2)    Watch for a new petition that we are developing with change.org to the President with a strong message calling on him to open travel as broadly as his authority allows.

We know that this doesn’t feel like enough, and we agree. But this is the reality we now face. 2011 will be a new year, with a new Congress (a difficult one); but it will also be a year with new ideas and new strategies on how to impact policy toward Cuba. And we urge you to act on all reasonable options, all good ideas on how to make a difference, all avenues open to citizens.

We’ll be back to you soon with the second step. If you are mad, that’s appropriate. If you are disillusioned, hopefully that is temporary. If you are determined to effect change, that’s good. Citizen action together—grassroots action—is powerful. Don’t forget that.