Strange Bedfellows Against U.S. Policy

September 25, 2007

The world of lobbying against U.S. policy toward Cuba offers an instructive lesson in the ironies and vagaries of coalition politics. Consider last April’s Cuba Action Day, which mobilized about 700 constituents from 35 states in Washington, D.C. to persuade their congressional representatives to endorse a pair of identical House and Senate bills that would roll back the 2004 travel ban. Citizen-lobbyists listened to panelists who took turns denouncing the travel ban. They included, among others, three Cuban-Americans, an agricultural exporter from Iowa and a professor.

But a bipartisan quartet of congressional representatives—Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)—dominated the day’s speechifying. Their pronouncements reflect a doctrine on Cuba that gives pause to other foes of the travel ban. Flake, sponsor of the House bill and perhaps the doctrine’s most eloquent proponent, portrayed the agenda as a libertarian effort to give U.S. citizens back their constitutional right to travel, one with convenient anti-socialist benefits. “Tourism, as you all know, travel of any kind, has a corrosive effect on repressive regimes,” Flake said. “So when Americans travel, when Europeans travel, it’s promoting individualism,” he continued, referring to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism’s recent denunciation of displays of individualism resulting from Cubans’ interactions with foreign travelers. “And that’s something we’re to be concerned about? I think we should embrace that.”

The doctrine mixes free-trader openness with standard bellicose posturing toward Castro. A 2001 op-ed written by Delahunt and the former U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, Sally Grooms Cowell, succinctly encapsulates this vision. They wrote: “A century ago, during the Spanish-American War, the United States invaded Cuba. It’s now time for a new invasion—with academics, missionaries, investors, human rights activists, and tourists. Let the college kids of spring break be in the vanguard of that invasion.” Voiced repeatedly at Cuba Action Day, this position doesn’t stray entirely from that of the Miami hardliners. The difference is mostly tactical, since its ultimate goal is the overthrow of Castro and Cuba’s Revolution. But where the 45-year-old sanctions regime has failed, the thinking goes, open markets and interpersonal engagement will prevail.

Neither of the familiar Cuba solidarity groups, the Venceremos Brigade and Pastors for Peace, were represented on the panel, though their flyers circulated. Both groups, which boast significant contacts with Cuban citizens, publicly violate the travel ban each year as an act of civil disobedience. A space for them to be heard at the event was apparently unworkable given the embarrassing clash of assumptions this would entail. “End the travel ban” was the day’s mantra, and reuniting families, restoring U.S. travel rights and toppling Castro were the polite rationales—less so the well-being of Cubans and certainly not aiding the Cuban state.

“It’s a very interesting phenomenon,” says Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, which sponsored the event. “You have Jeff Flake’s approach, which is that this is the best way to bring down Castro: contacts, trade and so forth. And then you have the other side, people like me, who argue it is indeed the best way to encourage Cuba to move toward a more open society—not to bring down Castro.” Geoff Thale, a staffer at another sponsoring organization, the Washington Office on Latin America, also distances himself from the anti-Castro rhetoric prevalent at Cuba Action Day. “I’m promoting political opening, but not outright political change,” he says. “If U.S.-Cuba relations improve, political dynamics in Cuba will change, but that doesn’t mean Castro’s downfall or market reform.” There’s a difference, he adds, between buying rice from Arkansas and setting up McDonald’s franchises.

Bonnie Massey, a seven-year member of the Venceremos Brigade, is grateful for the added momentum of the anti-sanctions coalition, despite its anti-Castro, neoliberal wing. She says the Brigade is willing to work with anyone, whatever their motives, on ending the embargo and travel restrictions. “This wasn’t a very popular opinion in the past,” she adds, “so I think it’s great.” Massey tells an inverted version of Flake’s democratization-through-tourism scenario. Many new brigadistas, she says, go to the island “with the attitude of teaching Cuba democracy,” but most return feeling they learned more and taught less. “They see a society that prioritizes children and older people, and that has an incredible health care system. People start questioning, like ‘I work every day and I can’t afford healthcare or get an education. Why is that?’”

About the Author
Pablo Morales is a freelance reporter in New York City.

Tags: US foreign policy, Cuba, US policy

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.