Thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations is welcome, and overdue

By Markos Moulitsas

President Obama recently announced measures to ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. But regardless of the merits of Obama’s changes, Congress is already moving far beyond them as it seeks to radically transform American Cuba policy.

Obama’s package includes putting an end to travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, lifting restrictions on wire transfers and granting American telecommunications companies the ability to lay down infrastructure connecting the island nation with the United States.

The tired, conservative Cuban-Americans in Congress are reacting with typical hysteria. 

“President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship,” said Florida G.O.P. Representatives Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart in a statement. “Unilateral concessions to the dictatorship embolden it to further isolate, imprison and brutalize pro-democracy activists… .”

The notion that a 50-year-old failed embargo has any chance of effecting change in Cuba is patently ludicrous; its failure is self-evident. Yet this pipe dream has persisted primarily because of Florida’s powerful Cuban-American community and its outsized role in a key presidential battleground state. 

But 2008 proved that the monolithic Cuban hard-line vote is weakening. While aging exiles are reliable voters and donors to the Republican Party, time hasn’t been kind to their antiquated cause. The older generation is dying off, and younger Cuban-Americans aren’t saddled with an emotional attachment to a bankrupt policy or allegiance to the G.O.P.

In Congress, the embargo’s strongest G.O.P. backers are in the deep minority, unable to do much more than issue angry statements. And while conservative Cuban hardliners claim a Democratic ally in Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, he is isolated in a party that has long sought a more enlightened approach.

In fact, it’s in Congress where the foundation is being laid for a real shift in Cuba policy. Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been aggressively promoting a report by his panel calling for systemic rethinking of the embargo: “After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of ‘bringing democracy to the Cuban people,’ while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba’s impoverished population.”

Americans are permitted to travel almost everywhere on the globe, even nuke-crazy North Korea; Cuba is the only nation that our government won’t let us visit. But legislation to eliminate the travel ban now enjoys the enthusiastic support of a bipartisan coalition spanning the ideological spectrum, from farm-state conservatives to urban progressives.

Ultra-conservative Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi and North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan are sponsoring the Senate bill along with 16 other co-sponsors. The House companion has 124 co-sponsors, from arch-conservatives Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to progressives like Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and pretty much every ideology represented in between.

These elected officials are in sync with the American people: A recent CNN poll found that 64 percent of Americans support lifting the travel ban, while 71 percent favor re-establishing diplomatic relations. There is little appetite for the status quo beyond a core of anachronistic Cold Warriors and aging Cuban exiles.

But the end of the travel ban isn’t the ultimate goal of the disparate group of elected officials working for reform. The aim is total normalization of relations with Cuba — and the question on that larger issue isn’t “if,” but “when.”

 Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos and a columnist at The Hill