Cuba on Capitol Hill – some observations

WASHINGTON, D.C. – While the public drama of the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic negotiations has been widely reported and continues to dominate the now diminishing Cuba headlines, a quiet – but in the long run far more strategically decisive set of events – has begun to play out in the House and Senate around the policy shift.

There have been three Congressional hearings, one in the House and two in the Senate. The most recent took place in the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee, only one day before the last round of negotiations. There are now more than two dozen bills introduced in both chambers that are related to the new policy, both in favor and against, and the number can be expected to grow. Of the favorable bills, two would appear to be the ones with the greatest chance of passage, and are the ones that have received the most attention so far.

One calls for free travel to Cuba by all American citizens; the second calls for increased freedom to trade with Cuba. The first attracts more public interest because it’s about free travel, a quintessential American right, and also because it has the support of a slim majority of the members of the Senate’s subcommittee dealing with the Western Hemisphere matters (10 of the 19), as well as 36 co-sponsors, a not insignificant number for the Senate. The second is the focus of a very visible, active and presumably well-funded lobbying effort by many of the most important sectors of the U.S. agricultural industry; it calls for eliminating restrictions on trade in agricultural goods to and from Cuba. It is also of note that a large number of agricultural business representatives continue to visit the island since the announcement of the change in policy. The bills against the policy shift, in contrast, have not so far gathered much visible political support or public or media attention, though it is still much too early to make any predictions about them.

This commentary sketches only a few aspects of the latest of these hearings in the full Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The choice of this hearing is for several reasons.  One is that all indications now suggest that, if any of the favorable bills have any chance of success, it would be in the Senate. Indeed, one of the first hearings, in the full House Committee on Foreign Affairs in early February, revealed that, at least at present, there is precious little support for the Administration’s policy shift in that chamber, a topic deserving of its own separate discussion. The second reason is that the initial hearing in the Senate took place in the Subcommittee in charge of Hemispheric Affairs, chaired by Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American vehemently opposed to the policy changes; and it is fair to say that its focus was relatively narrow. Its purpose seemed to be primarily to give exposure to a few dissidents from the island who, ironically, returned to their normal lives in Cuba after testifying.

It is noteworthy, however, that the testimony in that hearing by Mr. Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, provided a very clear contrast of the tactical differences between Senator Rubio (and his Cuban-American Senate colleague Robert Menendez) and the administration on the broad arena of human rights and democracy. Rubio and Menendez continue to insist on pre-conditions before taking any actions that they consider to be “concessions” to Cuba, while the administration argues for unilateral measures because they consider them to be strategically in the U.S. national interest, and eventually more likely to bring about changes in Cuba.

His testimony also focused on the expected geopolitical advantages of the policy shift, which will presumably turn the blame that has been directed at the U.S. for its treatment of Cuba, to a more critical examination of Cuba’s alleged shortcomings by many nations around the hemisphere and the world on matters of democracy and human rights. This theme also played a very prominent role in the more recent Senate hearing, as described below.

So what, if anything, can we glean from this last Senate hearing, where the witnesses were Ms. Jacobson and her colleague Thomas Shannon, Counselor for the State Department?

The following are some observations.

First, there was a notable difference in tone between the questioning by Senator Corker, the Republican Chair of the Senate Committee, and that of Congressman Royce, during the roughly counterpart hearing he chaired in the House in early February. Mr. Royce’s tone and clear message was strongly critical of the Administration, focusing negatively on the substance of the policy changes as well as on the alleged lack of transparency of the administration while conducting the negotiations with Cuba prior to the announcement. In contrast, while Mr. Corker asked a number of skeptical questions of the witnesses, he did so in a way that allowed them to carefully and persuasively describe the logic behind the policy changes.

He did not question the good will of the administration or even mention the issue of the secret negotiations. While some may see this as simply a difference in style or personality between these two Republican committee chairs, to this observer it looked more like Senator Corker was purposefully throwing softballs at the witnesses, in the guise of the expected criticisms, so they could easily bat them out of the park.  

Indeed, one could almost argue that the questions from the ranking Democrat, Senator Cardin, who is a co-sponsor of the travel bill, sounded at least as unforgiving of Cuba as those from Mr. Corker, yet Cardin is a co-sponsor of the bill to eliminate all restrictions on travel to the island and came out explicitly in support of the policy shift. Mr. Corker’s approach set an overall context to the hearing that was defined by a very elegant and coherent presentation of the policy’s rationale by Ms. Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, which she and Mr. Shannon were then able to reiterate throughout the hearing.

Second, it was clear that, leaving aside some of the more strident statements and questions from Senators Rubio and Menendez, the debate was really about tactics, not fundamental goals. Both sides of the aisle and of the debate, in the words of Senators Corker and Cardin, as well as Senators Flake (another Republican sponsor of the travel bill) and Democratic Senator Boxer, to cite a few representative examples, repeatedly emphasized that fundamental changes in the Cuban political, economic and social system were the common goal—though no one explicitly used the phrase “regime change.”

The only difference is that one side is persuaded that engagement is the way to accomplish these goals—after more than five decades of a failed hard line policy, while the other continues to favor pre-conditions that would require Cuba to make changes before any changes in U.S. embargo policy. This debate, of course, is not new; and it is one that continues to take place inside the bubble that assumes that Cuba will actually give ground on its system, something that they have consistently refused to do, and continue to assert they will not do. Many aspects of the context are new, however. Some of the most important are, first, that an Administration is taking decisive action based on the premise of engagement for the first time. The Carter period is somewhat of an exception, but it was far more timid and was practically stillborn after the interest sections were established.

Secondly, that Cuba is making some changes, on its own, that are more in accord with notions of a market economy as the U.S. envisions it and potentially create more common ground and room for collaboration. And third, but hardly the least important, the geopolitical environment in the hemisphere has actually isolated the U.S., not Cuba, and a change was needed to try to retake the mantle of hemispheric leadership, or is it the mantle of hegemony?

Indeed, a notable aspect of the hearing was the strong emphasis that the administration brought to these geopolitical advantages of the policy shift, quite beyond the bilateral relation with the island. Mr. Shannon’s testimony and answers, in particular, strongly emphasized that the shift in policy is already removing an “irritant” that had shaped the hemispheric debate to be focused on what the U.S. was wrongly doing to Cuba, rather than to the shortcomings of Cuba’s own system. In his opinion, the tide is already turning, and numerous hemispheric governments are and will be more willing to join the U.S. in challenging Cuba on issues of human rights and democracy, and join the U.S. in the common goal of changing Cuba’s economic, political and social system to one that is more in accord with the “Pan-American” system and consensus.

As an example of this geopolitical impact, he cited the fact that during the recent summit’s official civil society gathering, the presidents of Costa Rica and Uruguay, along with President Obama, participated in a meeting where two Cuban dissidents were present, something that, in his opinion, could not have occurred before the policy shift. Mr. Shannon even referred to the geopolitical advantage of the new policy turning the tide against new hemispheric groupings that have recently excluded the U.S. and are thus strategically detrimental to the U.S., mentioning CELAC(Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) specifically as an example, and contrasting it to the evident weaknesses of the “Pan-American” consensus, as evidenced in the serious, if not critical condition of the Organization of American States.

If only an ironic sideline, it was also interesting that Senator Perdue from Georgia, who came out fairly strongly against the policy shift, represents the state which was the lead trader in agricultural goods with Cuba in 2010—and likely still in 2015—and is also the state which is the leading producer of poultry in the U.S. Frozen chickens have been and remain Cuba’s biggest and most consistent import from the U.S. Also, a sizable portion of agricultural goods exported to Cuba went through Savannah, also an economic benefit to the state.

It thus appears that Senator Perdue’s position runs counter to at least some of his state’s important economic interests. Will that make him susceptible to the arguments of the agricultural lobby to lift the embargo, at least partly? Only time will tell.

Yet another interesting angle was the extent to which Senators Rubio and Menendez bitterly attacked any relaxation in travel restrictions. This made it clear that the elephant in the room is the travel bill, which already has majority support in Senator Rubio’s subcommittee and counts with 36 co-sponsors in the Senate (and counting). Clearly the opponents consider it the main legislative threat coming from the supporters of the policy, perhaps the leak that could burst the embargo dam.

Senator Rubio, and to a large extent Senator Menendez as well, spent much of their rhetorical ammunition on this issue, for example by repeatedly asserting that most if not all the money from increased travel would go to the Cuban military, while the witnesses and supportive senators emphasized that the benefits of increased contacts between American and Cuban citizens in all walks of life would far outweigh the economic gains by Cuba’s government.  The other factor that, in the eyes of this observer, also hurt the cause of Rubio and Menendez was the acerbic, even disrespectful attitude they took towards the witnesses. Senator Menendez, for example, repeatedly couched his questions with the phrase “would you have the committee believe that…” suggesting that the witnesses were, at best, trying to mislead the senators or pull the wool over their eyes.

These are only scattered impressions, not by any means a comprehensive review of this or the earlier hearings, so they are probably best closed with a bit of realism. The odds on Capitol Hill are always unpredictable, more so in today’s political environment, and even for those who breathe that rarefied air every day. And pundits would no doubt say that the chances of bipartisan compromise on any Cuba issue are nil.

While the most likely legislative proposal supportive of the policy shift to experience some success is probably the Senate bill to eliminate restrictions on travel to Cuba, a web page that purports to estimate the chances of passage gives it only an 11% chance, while only a 6% chance to the proposal to lift restrictions on trade with the island, despite its strong support by the agricultural lobby. A proposal in the house that would place severe pre-conditions on Cuba before any changes on the embargo laws could be made, on the other hand, is said to have a 19% chance. So the chances for changes that would relax the existing embargo legislation appear to be low, but, after the surprise December 17 announcement by the Administration, who can really say?

Manuel R. Gómez is Progreso Weekly’s new correspondent in Washington, D.C.