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A Democratic View

New York Congressman Charles Rangel champions the need for a new, more open U.S. policy toward Cuba
Charles Rangel
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

(continued from page 1)

I remember on a visit to Miami being approached by a Cuban-American man in the street who congratulated me for opposing the U.S. embargo. I had been invited to address a rally by a group of Cuban-American leaders who opposed President Castro but thought a policy of dialogue, rather than confrontation, would be effective in promoting democracy on the island. Among my hosts were Francisco Aruca, a radio broadcaster and then-owner of a very successful charter airline company; Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo; and Alfredo Duran, all patriots who had served time in Cuban prisons after the revolution.

So I asked the man, "What about you?" His answer was simple, and I had heard similar words from African Americans during the civil rights movement in the South. "Rangel," he said, "you keep doing what you're doing. But me, I've got a job and a family to feed. I can't take any chances."

The Bush administration has taken a consistently hard line on Cuba and has reversed or impeded all of the reforms in travel and agricultural sales achieved during the heady days of the Clinton presidency. The losers have been the American people and U.S. business, not the hated Castro dictatorship.

Americans' right to travel freely to an island just 90 miles from Florida has been crippled. Travel by U.S. citizens has been reduced by 50 percent. Humanitarian and religious groups have been greatly affected. For example, U.S. Jewish groups, which prior to the Bush crackdown took care packages to the Jewish synagogue in Havana three times a month, now are restricted to six or seven trips a year. Cuban Americans have also been punished. Their visits to their family members in Cuba are now limited to once every three years [instead of annually].

On the business side, according to various estimates, U.S. companies are losing $3 billion to $6 billion in potential sales to Cuba. Once the No. 1 export market for U.S. rice, prior to 1962, Cuba last year purchased a mere 150,000 metric tons valued at $40 million. Industry estimates put the potential size of the Cuban market that could be supplied by U.S. rice producers at four times as much, valued at $160 million. Rice and other agricultural sales have been held down by the Bush administration's financing and licensing regulations requiring cash payments and a letter of credit prior to shipment, requirements that have been relaxed for sales to other communist countries, including North Korea.

The administration has indicated it will settle for nothing less than regime change and the imposition of American-style democracy before agreeing to any relaxation of its policy. That standard remains despite the Cuban government's embrace of the American people following the 9/11 attacks, when Cuba voted with the U.S. on every U.N. resolution condemning terrorism. Following the Katrina disaster, our government even refused Cuba's offer to send 1,600 doctors to help the victims.

I do not believe that Cuba is faultless in its human rights policies and treatment of its people. In 2003, I was outraged by its arrests and later incarceration of 75 dissidents and journalists who were accused of complicity in U.S. attempts to subvert the government. In 1996, I loudly condemned the shooting down of two U.S. planes, resulting in the deaths of four Americans. I was not impressed by Cuban claims that they were provoked to their action.

However, I have long believed the best way to promote positive changes in Cuba is to fully engage the Cuban people, rather than attempting to isolate them. Expanding trade, educational, scientific and cultural exchanges of all sorts, by allowing Americans the freedom to travel freely to Cuba, would go further in promoting change in Cuba than our failed embargo has achieved in 50 years.

That is why I continue working on this issue, despite the steep hill left to climb. I have been working closely with my courageous Republican colleague Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has endured criticism from some in his party to advocate on behalf of Americans' freedom to travel to Cuba. I also continue pushing my legislation to lift the embargo entirely.

It's not 1998, but activists on the Cuba issue have returned to lobbying members of Congress in the hope that the new Democratic majority will make a difference in legislative efforts to change U.S. policy. Just as in 1998, I do not share the same optimism held by others who believe the death of Fidel Castro will make much difference in policy in Cuba or the U.S. in the short term.

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