WASHINGTON - Leading advocates for lifting the nearly 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba are hailing Congress's approval Tuesday of a general appropriations bill that eases - albeit in a mostly symbolic way - several restrictions on travel and sales to the Caribbean nation.
The bill, which was signed by President Barack Obama Wednesday, denies funding to the U.S. Treasury Department to enforce two restrictions, including travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, imposed by former President George W. Bush.
The bill also provides for a general license for travel by U.S. companies and individuals to Cuba for the purpose of selling U.S. agricultural and medical goods.
A Bush-imposed regulation had required that businesses wishing to sell their products in Cuba had to apply for a specific license to go there on a case-by-case basis, a cumbersome and sometimes protracted process that discouraged many companies from going through the process.
"For the first time in almost a decade, Congress is acting to loosen the Cuba embargo and send these modest reforms to a president who has promised to change the policy rather than issue veto threats or keep things as they are," asserted a joint statement by several groups, including the Centre for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
"When we have a Congress and a president acting to make sensible changes in Cuba policy, this indicates to us that the ground has shifted and that there is momentum behind the efforts to make broader and more lasting changes in policy," said the groups, which also included the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation (NAF) and the Latin America Working Group here.
In a victory for peace advocates, the funding measure, called an omnibus appropriations bill, also included a provision that makes permanent what had been a provisional ban on nearly all cluster-bomb exports from the United States, bringing Washington one step closer toward compliance with a treaty signed by nearly 100 nations in December that would ban cluster munitions altogether.
The cluster-bomb provision states that U.S.-made cluster munitions can be exported only if less than one percent of their sub-munitions are duds and if the recipient country formally agrees not to use the weapon "where civilians are known to be present."
U.S.-origin cluster bombs were most recently used by Israel in its 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon where dud rates were reportedly as high as 40 percent, and hundreds of civilians and de-miners have since been killed or maimed by unexploded munitions, according to the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines (USCBL).
The easing of the Cuba embargo comes a month before Obama's much-anticipated attendance at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad where he will meet all of the hemisphere's leaders except Cuban President Raul Castro.
Before he travels to the Summit, Obama is widely expected to follow through on campaign promises to use his executive authority to lift two of the most controversial measures imposed by Bush, which limited the freedom of Cuban-Americans to visit their families in Cuba to once every three years, and their ability to send remittances to their families on the island.
Anti-embargo activists, which not only include groups focused primarily on Cuba, but also major U.S. business associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, hope that he will go further than that, possibly by broadening the authority of the Treasury Department to issue general licenses for a wider range of travel to Cuba, including educational and cultural travel.
While hard-line anti-Castro forces based primarily in southern Florida and New Jersey, still strongly oppose any easing of the embargo, there appears to be a growing consensus in Washington - signaled in part by the approval of the omnibus bill in favour of moving toward normalisation, not only as a means to encourage reform by the Communist government, but also to remove an impediment to closer ties with the rest of Latin America, virtually all of which have urged Washington to lift the embargo.
On Tuesday, for example, the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a hemispheric think tank based in Washington, called U.S. efforts to isolate and sanction Cuba "an anachronism that serves mainly to isolate the United States from the rest of the hemisphere."
"Nothing would better demonstrate the new administration's intention to pursue a fresh approach to Latin America than making a quick start to dismantle the web of restrictions that the United States has imposed on Cuba," said IAD, which is co-chaired by former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills and former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. "A policy shift on Cuba, which carries great symbolic weight in the region, would be a powerful signal that Washington will be more responsive to Latin America views."
While the IAD report was directed primarily at Obama, majorities in Congress supported increased ties with Havana over the past eight years but were consistently thwarted by Bush's veto threats.
It is in that context that Congress approved the three Cuba-related provisions.
Two of the three are mainly symbolic. Thus, Cuban-Americans will still be permitted to visit their families once every three years, but the Treasury Department, which is charged with enforcing the embargo, will not be permitted to prosecute those who wish to travel more often, because no funds will be appropriated for that purpose.
Similarly, U.S. food and medical companies that export goods to Cuba will still be required under law to receive payment in cash before their shipments leave U.S. ports. But, under the new provision, Treasury will not be able to prosecute companies that receive cash on actual delivery.
The third provision - permitting Treasury to issue a general license for agricultural and medical businesses wishing to export goods to Cuba rather than forcing companies to approve requests on a case-by-case basis - does mark a real change in the underlying law, according to Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), an association of major U.S. multinational corporations which strongly supports lifting the embargo.
"This will make travel to Cuba for a whole class of businesspeople much easier, and it will take the burden off Treasury to go through these applications so it can focus more on tracking al Qaeda and other more serious transactions," he told IPS.
All of the anti-embargo groups, including the NFTC's Colvin, said the fact that Congress took the first step toward easing the embargo should make it easier for Obama himself to go beyond his campaign promises to ease restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances.
"This debate shows how significantly the U.S. political climate has changed on Cuba," said Sarah Stephens, CDA's director. "I believe there is momentum in Congress to make travel available for all, but the president need not wait for legislation to seize the initiative," she said.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.