Diaz-Balart Moves to Roll Back Family Travel
Anti-Cuba travel Representatives Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
At the end of last week Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Fidel Castro’s wayward nephew, may have inadvertently improved President Obama’s prospects in Florida for the next election.
Whether inspired by ideology or fear, the Representative successfully amended an appropriations bill in committee to return Cuban American travel to the very harsh policies of the Bush Administration. While the amendment is unlikely to get through the Senate counterpart, the threat it poses will have a jolting impact among those most directly affected.
Under Bush Cuban Americans could visit an unfeelingly narrow definition of family members only once every three years and send no more than $1200 annually in remittances. Obama took a larger than normal share of the Cuban American vote by promising during campaign appearances to allow unlimited travel and remittances. He followed through within three months of taking office.
It is estimated that 400,000 Cuban Americans will travel back this year, more than 20% of the immigrant population. Thousands more will simply send money.
Diaz-Balart justified his move as denying revenue to his enemies in Havana. However, most Cuban Americans stay with family members or friends or in private homes, not in state hotels like Cuba’s other two million visitors. They also patronize government owned restaurants less frequently.
Why would Diaz-Balart and the Republican Party risk making so many enemies, and losing support in a normally reliable bloc?
In part because they know that vote is already eroding and they need to stop the hemorrhage.
Most Cuban Americans who visit not only reinforce personal ties but also come back with a less extreme view of the island and with some appreciation for its economic reform process. The remittances they send are partly for consumables and partly for family investments in the growing private sector of services, casas particulares (bed and breakfasts) and paladares (restaurants). Goods they bring or ship with mulas (private carriers) become in-kind capital for a burgeoning unofficial retail network.
Their relatives in Cuba also find reason to hope that the long era of US hostility and isolation is coming to an end and feel their guard can be lowered.
Diaz-Balart as easily could have tried to block the opening of purposeful travel for the rest of us that was announced by the President in January. Significantly, he did not. That could either reflect satisfaction with OFAC’s delay in implementation, or mistaken indifference to our economic and political impact. His amendment did eliminate our option to send $2000 in annual remittances and an unlimited amount to religious organizations but that was probably collateral damage, as it appears in the same section of the law governing Cuban American funds.
However, it is one thing for the old guard in Miami to passively lose support. It is another to actively anger voters who will be spurred to protect their new found and much appreciated freedom for reunions.
To date the White House has not said a word to defend against the Republican attack on its opening for Cuban Americans. Perhaps they are saving their rebuff for a tactically advantageous moment rather than supinely relying on the Senate to remove the language.
On the other side will be Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio, the latter a big favorite for the nomination as Republican Vice-Presidential candidate. Both share Diaz-Balart’s opposition to all Obama Cuba initiatives, including the opening of family travel and remittances.
The contempt of the hard liners for fellow Cuban Americans was revealed by chief lobbyist and Democracy PAC paymaster Mauricio Claver-Carone in an interview by Tracey Eaton in Along the Malecon:
Some of the travelers have only been in the United States for a year, he said. They emigrate to the U.S. and start collecting government welfare checks. They stay for a year, then begin traveling back to Cuba, where they spend much of their time – and their money.
“You can’t be a refugee and then in a year and a day, go back to the source country. That’s a problem. We can’t have our cake and eat it, too.
“Going to Cuba 10 times a year isn’t humanitarian. Our taxpayers are paying for a welfare state within a welfare state.”
Claver-Carone is as generous to the rest of Miami:
“Miami was a swamp until Cubans got there. Cubans are very entrepreneurial. The future of Cuba is economically secure. Politically, it’s a process.”
Links and resources
"The Human cost: Cubans and Cuban Americans talk about their lives and the US embargo", invaluable new 49 page booklet published here by the Latin America Working Group and the Washington Office on Latin America