Thursday, March 5, 2009

Phony war [Updated]

The first months of World War II, when war was clearly under way but there was more military positioning than fighting, was known as the “phony war.” Something similar is happening in Congress with regard to Cuba policy.

The huge catchall spending bill that the House approved, and that the Senate seems poised to approve, contains three Cuba provisions. All were written in committee last year, none were debated fully in a normal legislative process, and only weeks ago it became known that all had made their way into the final version of the bill.

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey calls it “the crudest process I can imagine – without analysis, without inclusion, and without debate.” That’s a fair point – and one he could probably make about dozens, if not hundreds of other legislative items each year.

The three provisions are relatively small potatoes. One provides that Americans who wish to sell agricultural products to Cuba may travel under “general license” to promote their sales, i.e. they will no longer need to write the government and wait for a letter granting permission to travel. That’s a positive step, considering that the sales have been legal since 2000, but not a momentous policy change.

A second provision says that no funds may be spent to implement or enforce President Bush’s 2004 regulations that reduced opportunities for Cuban Americans to visit relatives. A third says that no funds may be spent to implement or enforce 2005 regulations governing the terms of agricultural sales to Cuba. These provisions are constructive too, but largely symbolic – they leave the Bush regulations in place, and it would be still illegal to violate them, although if you violate them and the feds decide to go after you, it may take them some time to get to you.

Senator Menendez took the floor Monday to oppose the provisions and to complain about the process. Senate Majority Leader Reid joined him and expressed solidarity. Later, Reid told reporters he doesn’t like the Cuba provisions but believes they will be enacted. Additionally, Senator Menendez is reportedly holding up two Obama Administration nominees in protest, which is earning him some fire from the left.

All in all, it seems like a show of force, an effort to signal the kind of opposition that would be mustered if more substantial policy change is considered later this year.

Surely, a real debate will be joined later this year about changing Cuba policy. The Administration, during confirmation hearings, stated that it is reviewing the policy. At some point it will have to decide how much citizen contact it wants to permit, and it can use its regulatory authority to change travel regulations as it pleases. (If it merely implements the Obama campaign promise to allow unrestricted Cuban American family visits, it will render this week’s legislation moot.) And Congress could act on travel, or on other fronts.

So this has been the phony war, the real debate is to come. If this week’s legislation shows one thing, it is perhaps that in the absence of the old Bush veto threats directed at any bill that liberalizes Cuba policy, this Congress has more options, and more political will.

New York Times coverage here.

[Update: to the contrary, this Orlando Sentinel report says the bill does not face smooth sailing.]


Anonymous said...

easy, peters, too much mental masturbation and you will go blind....

Anonymous said...

the 'cuban'-american exile extremists complaining about the process? that's the pot calling the kettle black. only reason current ridiculous, counterproductive, anticonstitutional and cruel cuba legislation remains in place are the various more or less legal maneuvers incl. bribing, sorry, campaign financing of amenable congressmen and senators.
it's high time this mafia is dealt with on their own terms and in the only language they understand: ruthlessly.

Anonymous said...

cutting off funding always was the legislative means to force policy through congress; its been that way for years re letting all americans come to cuba.
all this shows is how desperate the cuban-american cartel is getting as they try and prevent any movement towards normalization and internal reform; they just want to make sure they;ll be in charge post castro. fortunately they never will.
what is the purpose of these aggressive policies anymore, what is the purpose of the embargo?

Anonymous said...

burnishing your democratic credentials, anon?

Anonymous said...

the only logical reason for the 'cuban'-exile mafia to fight any normalization of relations:
they know they missed the boat- there will be no violent upheaval in cuba, which would allow Messrs bacardi, fanjul and their most obedient servants in congress, the diaz-balarts, ros-lehtinen, martinez, menendez et al., to ride on the marine's coatttails into havana and reestablish their pre-revolutionary control, which in turn would allow them to control the huge amounts of money to be made with the reconstruction of the ruined country.
all the talk about human rights is for the naive - have you ever heard of anyone in congress getting worked up about lack of free elections in, e.g., saudi arabia, china, vietnam, myanmar, north corea etc.? and US citizens can travel there. if the 'cuban'-exile mafia doesn't want to go to cuba, stay home. but don't try to keep the supposedly freest people on the planet from deciding where they want to go.