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the provision and why could reveal an important shift in how U.S. politics deal with Cuba, Cuban Americans, and our outdated embargo.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."

"What makes Cubans different from Haitians who come here or anyone else," Rubio went on, "if they go back and forth, that is to say, if they're not exiles at all? In that case, why should Cubans be any different? The whole structure would have unraveled had something not been done."

Rubio is right to fear increasing awareness that Cubans emigres are no longer overwhelmingly political refugees, but rather are largely economic migrants. But if these newer generation Cuban emigres don't act like exiles, why don't Rubio and his like-minded Cuban-American colleagues fight instead to end the unique access to the United States still afforded to Cubans half a century after Fidel Castro took power?

As a different sort of Cuban emigre -- economic rather than political, traveling back and forth between the two countries rather than permanently exiled in the U.S. -- becomes more numerous in the U.S., they are asking for a different sort of U.S. policy toward Cuba, one at odds with the old ways. This growing, more moderate cohort of Cuban Americans who want to travel to and invest in the island could mean that the hardline exiles' influence on U.S. Cuba policy might be waning.

Another member of Congress who supports reinstituting travel restrictions, David Rivera of Florida, has proposed legislation that would make it tougher for Cubans who still want to travel home occasionally to get green cards. This would, in effect, slow down the Cuban American community's demographic transformation, which is seeing non-embargo-supporting economic immigrants gradually replace the political exile hardliners for dominance in the community.

"By the time you have critical mass," he said in 2008, "with an ability to make a difference, we may all be back in Cuba." Rivera's bill would deny Cubans who come to the U.S. a speedy green card, as promised to them in the Cuban Adjustment Act, if they travel back to Cuba within their first five years in the United States. If Fidel Castro no longer drives Cubans into exile, Rivera and his colleagues would, forcing them to choose between their families on the island and their green card here in the United States.

Ros-Lehtinen said "there will always be another battle" when it comes to this policy, and no doubt she and her colleagues are prepared to fight it. Because, otherwise, it is only a matter of time until the rest of Congress and the U.S. reaches this game-changing conclusion -- that Cuban Americans are no longer exiles in need of special refugee treatment, that this very Cuban American community on behalf of which our 50 year-old embargo persists has already substantially normalized relations with their brethren on the island -- it could finally spell the end of the embargo altogether. And, for a few holdout hardliners, that's a fight they refuse to lose.