Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas


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This week, two small steps for U.S. policy on Cuba.

First up: Sen. Richard Lugar’s new report, “Changing Cuba Policy-In the United States National Interest.” In short, it calls the existing policies ineffective, finding major reform in the United States’ best national (and economic) interests.

The recent leadership changes in Washington and Havana have created an opportunity to “reevaluate a complex relationship marked by misunderstanding, suspicion and open hostility,” Sen. Lugar wrote in his letter to fellow senators.

Several traditional realists, like Pedro Burelli, a former member of the PDVSA—Venezuela’s state oil company—board of directors have applauded this report’s recommendations as pragmatic, rather than “coming from the perspective of the teary-eyed leftist camp.”

And, the report, I’m told, has largely received positive feedback.

Not everyone offers kudos. Adolfo Franco, former assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), raised several concerns, including that the report “makes no mention of representative democracy as being our paramount policy goal for Cuba and the entire region.”

But, as Franco and others noted, Sen. Lugar has said this stuff for nearly a decade now. Seemed to be the appropriate time though to say it again. Especially since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised a thorough review of Cuba policy.

Second small development: Congress takes up a huge spending bill from last year containing several provisions that would de-fund the enforcement of restrictions imposed by then-President Bush in 2004 on family travel and remittances to Cuba.

The House approved this omnibus bill on Wednesday, and the Senate is expected to do the same next week.

Not much of protest from Congress, except from Florida Sen. Mel Martinez who threatened to block the bill.

So what’s up with the timing of these developments, and why so quiet?

Franco cautioned that the Democratic majority was trying to change policy under the radar, especially as Congress is focused on domestic economic issues. Franco said, “I do hope we can have a meaningful debate [of any proposed changes] in Congress” and that it would be taken up in the press. Yeah, no kidding!

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas emailed in:

“Nobody is trying to sneak anything new through anywhere. In fact, it isn’t really bold enough for where the issue is now, for where policymakers and others are.”

And where are they? Stephens notes: “There is widespread consensus that the policy has failed, consensus that is growing every day. There have been congressional majorities voting for change for years; plus, everybody from the Cuban American National Foundation to the Cuba Study Group to Freedom House to Senator Lugar is saying it’s time, now, to change policy.”

Meanwhile, one long-time House staffer lamented that there was a sense of resignation and no way to stop the coming changes to U.S. policy—a combination of farm state lobbyists and liberals in Congress see this as their time. Of course, there are still those who will fight to the bitter end.

Some also believe President Obama is taking Congress’ pulse on Cuba, so he can get a sense of how far the administration can go initially or later.

That initial move is expected to come shortly before the Summit of the Americas in April with an executive order fulfilling a campaign promise to repeal restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans. (A recommendation of the Lugar report.)

There’s expected to be more movement in Congress in the coming months…including a bill allowing travel for all Americans.

Now on a different note: A reception hosted by Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco to recognize the influence of African culture in Colombia.

The stunning feature: Grupo Bahia, five talented and energetic musicians playing the marimba, guasa, bombo, cununos and the sax.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma Powell, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, Colombian Minister of Culture Paula Moreno Zapata, and Colombia’s Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez Merizalde—as well as some soon-to-be administration officials—attended.

But, even here, the hot topic of conversation was Cuba. Well, that, and of course, the Colombia free trade agreement, as well as a planned Hollywood movie about the dramatic FARC hostage release. Who would play Santos in the film? Harrison Ford, perhaps?

The Colombian ministers were in town this week along with several other dignitaries from the Western Hemisphere as preparations ramp up for the Summit of the Americas. Celso Amorim, Brazilian Minister of Foreign Relations also met with Secretary Clinton and other officials on Wednesday—ahead of President Lula da Silva’s visits to New York and Washington, DC next month.

And, speaking of preparations for the summit—stay tuned for the official announcement of a certain former career foreign service officer (Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow) to be named special envoy to the summit. Any day now…


Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.

Tags: Castro, Cuba, US
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