Al Fox: Let’s put them on the spot!

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Let’s put them on the spot!

By Albert A. Fox, Jr.

When it comes to Cuba policy in the United States, the media need to do their homework, and our “friends in Congress” need to do much more.

For someone who has been involved in the issue of enhancing U.S.-Cuba relations for many years, one of the most counterproductive factors is the unfounded but recurrent optimism among pro-normalization activists and some in the media. Again and again, we get our hopes up, saying that there’s “light at the end of the tunnel,” that everything is going to be different this year. But the fix is always in, before the optimists even know what has happened.

In January 2009, many people believed the travel ban, denying Americans their right to travel freely to Cuba, would be lifted. There was great optimism with the Lugar Report, with the statements of Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Bill Delahunt, and all the hard work of many liberal think tanks and organizations. Dr. Wayne Smith and I predicted it was nothing more than wishful thinking. The travel ban was not lifted.

In January 2010, many people believed it would pass by mid-year. Again there was great optimism, with a number of new co-sponsors to the Delahunt bill, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman’s comments, and action taken by the House Agriculture Committee, leading many to believe Congress was serious. I predict Congress will not pass legislation this year lifting the travel ban.

There’s great optimism year after year after year, but the result is always the same. The travel ban remains in place. Why is a Democratic administration with a Democratic-controlled Congress unable to lift the travel ban, if poll after poll shows 80 percent of Americans and 65 percent of Cuban Americans want it lifted?

It’s not our adversaries that keep the legislation from passing but rather “our friends”. Our perpetual optimism fails to hold them accountable for their lack of intensity when the Diaz-Balart cabal goes into action. It’s the inertia of our Democratic leaders that allows the Diaz-Balarts to win. If Democratic heavyweights in the House such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Howard Berman, or Reps. Colin Peterson, Bill Delahunt, James McGovern and John Tanner made lifting the travel ban their priority, “Batistites” like Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — three lightweight members of Congress who are only known for propagandizing the Cuba issue — could not stop them. 

On the Senate side, does anyone believe if Senators Harry Reid, Dick Durban, John Kerry, Chris Dodd, Byron Dorgan, Michael Enzi or Richard Lugar made lifting the travel ban their priority that Bob Menendez, Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson could stop them?

(This is not a criticism of these distinguished members of Congress on the anti-embargo side of the fence — several are personal friends — but rather a realistic analysis that in their day-to-day responsibilities for their congressional districts, Cuba is not a significant priority.)

A priority commitment from  our friends and President Obama aside, the political money trail is a major factor. 

A handful of “Batistites,” beginning with the late founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, Jorge Mas Canosa, have literally infiltrated the U.S. government. They contribute political campaign money to many members of the House and Senate from every state. The Cuban-American members of Congress, along with a few other members of Congress, have been bought by Batista money. Florida Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Kendrick Meek, Indiana Rep. Dan Burton, and Sens. Bob Menendez and Joe Lieberman have been compromised by “Batistite” money.

It is important to note that in U.S. political culture, contributing money to elected officials doesn’t mean a bribe but rather a show of commitment. Rep. Alan Boyd, a Florida Panhandle Democrat, voted for lifting the travel ban in 2002. After receiving campaign contributions from the “Batistites” he now supports maintaining the travel ban. In short, in the view of most elected officials the proponents of the travel ban are very committed while the opponents spend a lot of time talking.

Democracy and freedom in Cuba make a great story, and an entire industry has been built around this cause. For a “transition to democracy” in Cuba, the United States spends approximately $75 million of taxpayer money a year, between Radio/TV Marti and USAID programs. The Office of Foreign Assets Control spends more money and assigns more personnel to enforcing the embargo against Cuba than there’s personnel to look at Iran and other countries that are on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Office of Cuba Broadcasting was moved to Miami, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control also has offices there. They are staffed by Cuban-Americans and/or Americans who share the Lincoln Diaz-Balart philosophy regarding U.S.-Cuba relations. The United States does not spend that kind of money for a “transition to democracy” in Iran, China, North Korea, or the Sudan.

Finally, there’s the false hope that there will be a biological solution to the embargo. We are told, ‘Just wait a little longer, the hard-line old-timers are dying off and along with them the embargo will disappear.’ Wrong. There are hardliners in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, who are just as strident and driven by vengeance, pride, and retribution as was the late Jorge Mas Canosa. Right now, the banner carriers of the hardline position are Mauricio Claver-Carone, age 32, David Rivera, 44, and Marco Rubio, 39. 

Sorry — no biological solution. Instead, I’d suggest U.S.-Cuba relations are starting to edge towards normalization because people of all generations and ethnic groups realize the existing policy is insane and an outdated relic of the Cold War.

One cannot discuss U.S.-Cuba relations without expressing the great disappointment in President Obama’s administration. While again there is great optimism in many quarters that President Obama is seeking rapprochement with Cuba, the facts say otherwise. Now some insiders are saying that in his second term, he will seriously address the issue. That is the very same logic we heard towards the end of Bill Clinton’s first term!

I hope I am completely wrong and want those who seek rapprochement with Cuba to prove me wrong. While I will continue to work diligently to lift the travel ban, at this point in time, I see nothing that leads me to believe the travel ban legislation will pass this year. Nor will it pass next year. Unless those who seek rapprochement with Cuba learn to speak with one voice and participate in the money campaign game, we will never win. Everyone should know this is not a pessimistic analysis, but an analysis based on fact and history. No one likes to be wrong. But I do hope I am!

Albert A. Fox, Jr. is a retired businessman and lobbyist with a 41-year career in Washington, D.C.. He is the founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, now headquartered in Tampa, Florida. He is a former U.S. Congressional candidate, who was involved in behind-the-scenes work to resolve the Elián González affair. 

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