Is the Embargo Doomed? A Fight Over the Future of Cuban American Politics

Pro-normalization economic emigres from Cuba may begin to outnumber the hardliner exiles who have long dominated the community

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Cuban Americans draped in Cuban flags gather at a popular Miami restaurant during a 2006 week of uncertainty surrounding Fidel Castro's health / AP

When Congress nearly failed to continue funding the government recently, one of the provisions in the spending bill that they couldn't agree on was an obscure bit of legislation related to the almost 50-year-old embargo of Cuba.

The provision -- which was eventually dropped -- would have reinstated a Bush administration policy that restricted Cuban Americans to visiting family in Cuba only once every three years, and then only to immediate family and with no humanitarian exceptions -- even for deathbed and funeral visits.

That policy, first adopted in 2004, was so unpopular among Cuban Americans that Barack Obama, during his 2008 campaign, promised to lift all restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island. He delivered on that promise in his first year in office. So it came as no surprise that the Cuba provision never made it into the final bill.

But, even though it failed, who championed the provision and why could reveal an important shift in how U.S. politics deal with Cuba, Cuban Americans, and our outdated embargo.

The members of Congress who led the effort to reinstate these draconian rules restricting Cuban Americans are, in fact, themselves Cuban Americans. They include the powerful chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and House Appropriations Committee member Mario Diaz-Balart. In the Senate, both Cuban American senators, Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, also favor these restrictions on travel and financial assistance to families in Cuba. Of the four, Menendez is the only democrat; all four are anti-Castro hardliners.

They argue that the travel and remittances provide a financial windfall to the Castro government. This is true: the more money Cubans have to spend on daily necessities or on starting up small businesses, the more the Cuban economy as a whole will improve and the government will inevitably capture more hard currency in circulation. The hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans are not generally fans of the Castro government -- many came to America, or their parents came to America, to escape its political and economic policies. Yet sending money back is a trade-off that many of them believe they must make for the sake of their friends and family on the island.

So why do these Congressmen believe that denying the Cuban government some hard currency is so crucial a policy rider as to nearly allow it to bring down a trillion dollar spending bill? The Cuban government, after all, would likely manage to either replace or do without the money, as it did in financial crises in the early 1990s and again in 2008.

In fact, while depriving the Cuban government of hard currency is a high priority for anti-Castro hardliners in Congress, there is an even bigger issue at stake for these staunch embargo supporters. Senator Rubio put his finger on it when he defended the restrictions in 2008, while still a member of the Florida legislature.

"What you had was a situation where people would come to Miami from Cuba, stay for a year and a day and then go back," he said. "And what this was doing was threatening the sustainability of the Cuban Adjustment Act itself, the U.S. law that gives Cubans who come to this country a special status as political exiles rather than immigrants."

Presented by

Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note and directs the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation.

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