Veto This? Cuba And Bush In 2004

30 October 2003

By Stentor Danielson

It's embarrassing for a president to have to veto legislation when his own party controls Congress. Thus far, George W. Bush has dodged that problem, issuing no vetoes in over two and a half years in office. He even reversed his position on campaign finance reform, which he strongly opposed while a candidate, to sign rather than veto the law sponsored by his former opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Yet the signs are pointing to a possible first veto in the near future. The issue is Cuba. On Friday, the Senate passed a bill barring the use of government funds to enforce a longstanding ban on travel from the U.S. to Cuba. The House of Representatives passed a similar bill last month. This adds to an easing of economic sanctions against Cuba that was passed in 2000. While the travel bill passed by sizeable margins, neither house had the two thirds support required to override a veto.

The Bush administration is not likely to back down over this issue. Just a few weeks ago, Bush called for harsher enforcement of the ban. Displaying its penchant for linking everything to terrorism, the administration has vowed to use anti-terrorism funds to fight the common practice of U.S. tourists getting to Cuba indirectly, by way of a more open country like Canada or Mexico. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balert, who represents Miami in Congress, echoed this line by describing Cuba as "an anti-American terrorist state."

While 19 Republicans voted for ending enforcement of the ban, the standard GOP position is that taken by Bush, who said that lifting the ban would "provide a helping hand to a desperate and repressive regime." Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is evil, therefore we must punish him by cutting off travel to his island.

The problem is, the travel ban doesn't do much to hurt Castro's regime. Keeping American travelers out means keeping American ideas out. Castro, like all dictators, depends in part on his control of what information his subjects can hear. The state-run media do their best to make sure that all Cubans hear is Castro's spin on things. That control would become much more difficult if there were a wave of American tourists. While foreign tourists from other parts of the world, as well as surreptitious Americans, regularly vacation in Cuba, the island's proximity to the U.S. means that demand for travel would be immense, swamping the country's existing tourism facilities.

Bush also claims that tourist dollars would go right into Castro's pockets, propping up a regime that has struggled financially due to its communist economy and the loss of its former patron, the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly, increased economic activity would brighten Castro's checkbook a little. But, it would more than make up for that by getting resources to the Cuban people. Castro benefits from the island's economic weakness, because it makes the people dependent on the government. An industry fueled by foreign tourism would be harder for the regime to control, and thus weaken one means it has for repression.

Perhaps the strongest endorsement comes from Cuba's resident dissidents. The people we ought to be supporting -- and who hardliners think they are supporting -- want the travel ban and other economic sanctions lifted. They understand that U.S. policy helps Castro to keep freedom out. Ending the travel ban is hardly a complete recipe for supporting freedom in Cuba. But, maintaining the ban has proven to be counterproductive.

Bush's view of Cuba is more or less consistent with his hardline approach to foreign policy. Anyone who can manage to get on his enemies list -- Iraq, Iran, Germany -- can expect harsh treatment. The harshness is not necessarily dependent on how odious a dictator one is, as evidenced by the White House's cozy relationship with the likes of Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov. But, Castro would have a lot of trouble getting on the Bush's "good list," since there's no Islamist terrorism in the Caribbean that Cuba could help to fight.

The real disagreement, however, is a matter of politics, not policy. The closed-door policy is believed to be a vote-getter in southern Florida. There, a politically active community of Cubans demand a hardline policy toward the island. Many of them are, or are descended from, exiles who left Cuba when Castro came to power.

Congress had the fortitude to cripple the travel ban, because most members don't rely on the support of virulently anti-Castro voters to stay in office. What's more, many of them represent states that could stand to benefit handsomely if relations between the U.S. and Cuba thaw. It's notable that two of the Democratic Senators who broke ranks to oppose lifting the ban were Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, who represent Florida. It's a bit much to think they just coincidentally happened to agree with the GOP line on this issue.

The President, of course, could use votes from anywhere. Florida's Cuban community looms especially large in Bush's electoral calculus. We all remember the slim margin -- around 500 votes by some recounts -- by which he won the state, and hence the nation, in 2000. In that contest, Cubans were a key Republican bloc. They also make Bush look stronger among Latino voters, since Americans whose ancestors came from other parts of Latin America tend to vote Democratic. Perhaps Bush has learned his lesson about relying on exiles for foreign policy advice when it turned out that the information he had gotten from Iraqi exiles about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs was bogus -- but I doubt it.

The Cuba question has gotten Bush's rivals pandering, too. Democratic front-runner Howard Dean said that, in general, he supported the idea of raising the restrictions, but that he wouldn't do it right now. Dean's equivocation came because he was asked about Cuba just after Castro carried out a widely publicized series of show trials that resulted in harsh sentences for advocates of democracy and freedom on the island. Dean didn't dare look soft on Cuba just after such a display of repression. In doing so, he implicitly endorsed the GOP talking point that lifting the sanctions would be good for Castro. Dean took a lot of flak from Democrats -- including many of his own supporters -- for his lack of spine. Perhaps he'll reconsider and hold fast if he gets the nomination and starts campaigning in Florida.

It's unhealthy for a nation's foreign policy to be driven by one small interest group. What I'd like to see from whichever Democrat gets the party's nod is a "Sister Souljah moment." Speaking in front of a black audience in 1992, Bill Clinton denounced racist comments made by the rapper Sister Souljah. The move paid off, gaining him more credibility among moderates than he lost among extremist blacks. A similar strategy could work for a candidate who can point out that U.S. policy toward Cuba is counterproductive.

Even among Cuban Americans, the group promoting a hardline approach is shrinking. If a candidate can recognize that the supposed power of this faction is as much a product of political myth as it is of reality, he may be able to do the right thing without being punished in the voting booth.

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