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Change in U.S. Policy Toward Cuba Could Be on Horizon

March 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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Americans with family in Cuba have long struggled with restrictions that limit travel back home, among other issues. With Democrats in charge of Congress and Fidel Castro relinquishing power to his brother, a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba could be near.
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RAY SUAREZ: For many Cuban-born Americans, the right to return home at their own convenience has been restricted far too long. Arlene Garcia still despairs about missing her mother’s funeral 12 years ago.

ARLENE GARCIA, Cuban-born American: I was not able to go to her funeral, and I was not able to spend any time with my family at that time, consoling my dad.

RAY SUAREZ: Garcia had already traveled to Cuba once during that year, and U.S. government policy at the time allowed just one annual trip. Today, it’s even more strict: just one visit every three years, regardless of how urgent the need.

ARLENE GARCIA: You know, the Cuban government actually doesn’t prohibit me from going there. My own government, you know, the government that I’m willing to give my life for, the United States, is the one that is — or, not the government, but the country — prohibits me from going to Cuba.

RAY SUAREZ: Ever since the Cuban revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro’s long reign as communist dictator began, the State Department has restricted Cuban-Americans to just limited trips back to the island nation, while most other Americans have been barred outright from trading with, investing in, or traveling there.

But times are changing in Cuba, as well as in the United States. After undergoing intestinal surgery last summer, Fidel Castro relinquished power to his brother, Raul. And with Democrats now in control of Congress in Washington, the first significant change in U.S. policy towards Cuba could be near.

U.S. policy is 'outdated'

RAY SUAREZ: A majority of congressional Democrats, along with a growing number of Republicans, support engagement with Cuba and are behind several bills that would lift travel and trade restrictions.

Jose Serrano, Democrat of New York, and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona say relaxing U.S. policy is long overdue.

REP. JOSE SERRANO (D), New York: It's outdated. It's a relic of the Cold War. It hurts people; it hurts a lot of Americans. They can't travel to Cuba. And as long as we are hypocritical in our beliefs that you can talk to the Iranians, to the North Koreans, and other folks, but you can't talk to Cuba and you can't travel to Cuba, that's not going to sell anymore.

REP. JEFF FLAKE (R), Arizona: I think if there are Cuban-American families or other Americans who say, "I don't want to travel to Cuba because I think that that will somehow prop up the regime there," then they ought to be able to make that choice.

But to tell Cuban-American families, "You have to choose between going to your father or your mother's funeral," is simply wrong, and it's something that we shouldn't tell families.

Administration's stance

RAY SUAREZ: But Bush administration officials have vowed relations with Cuba will improve only when Fidel Castro is out of the picture, and they don't believe he is.

Raul Castro's recent offering to open talks with the United States was rejected by administration officials. Their point person on Cuba is Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who maintains the trade and travel bans will remain until the Cuban government takes positive steps toward a transition to democracy.

CARLOS GUTIERREZ, Secretary of Commerce: Our focus should be on the island, on Havana, on the regime, on the people of Cuba, and not in Washington, which I think is the wrong way of thinking about this.

RAY SUAREZ: Gutierrez himself was born in Havana. At age six, just after the revolution, his family took him and fled to Florida.

CARLOS GUTIERREZ: I would be very leery of leaving anything up to the Communists. One of the things that we have learned over time is that we cannot trust them. They do not like the U.S. They believe that the U.S. is their enemy. They truly are the definition of an enemy; they would like to see the world without us.

RAY SUAREZ: Administration officials have said President Bush likely would veto any measure to engage with Cuba, but lawmakers and Cuba-watchers believe there is sufficient support in Congress to override a veto. Julia Sweig has written widely on U.S.-Cuba relations.

JULIE SWEIG, Council on Foreign Relations: I believe, if there were a secret vote today in the U.S. Congress, there would be a bipartisan majority, Republicans and Democrats, voting to gut the entire embargo policy.

Wary of Cuban government

RAY SUAREZ: But Bush administration officials have vowed relations with Cuba will improve only when Fidel Castro is out of the picture, and they don't believe he is.

Raul Castro's recent offering to open talks with the United States was rejected by administration officials. Their point person on Cuba is Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who maintains the trade and travel bans will remain until the Cuban government takes positive steps toward a transition to democracy.

CARLOS GUTIERREZ, Secretary of Commerce: Our focus should be on the island, on Havana, on the regime, on the people of Cuba, and not in Washington, which I think is the wrong way of thinking about this.

RAY SUAREZ: Gutierrez himself was born in Havana. At age six, just after the revolution, his family took him and fled to Florida.

CARLOS GUTIERREZ: I would be very leery of leaving anything up to the Communists. One of the things that we have learned over time is that we cannot trust them. They do not like the U.S. They believe that the U.S. is their enemy. They truly are the definition of an enemy; they would like to see the world without us.

RAY SUAREZ: Administration officials have said President Bush likely would veto any measure to engage with Cuba, but lawmakers and Cuba-watchers believe there is sufficient support in Congress to override a veto. Julia Sweig has written widely on U.S.-Cuba relations.

JULIE SWEIG, Council on Foreign Relations: I believe, if there were a secret vote today in the U.S. Congress, there would be a bipartisan majority, Republicans and Democrats, voting to gut the entire embargo policy.

Reaching out to Latin America

RAY SUAREZ: Even those who support engagement with Cuba acknowledge its history of restricting economic and political freedoms. Many say lifting the travel ban would show Americans are anxious to interact with Cubans, and it might send a positive message to other left-leaning Latin American countries now critical of American foreign policy.

New York's Jose Serrano.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: I've got to believe then that a lot of the rhetoric you hear from Latin America against us diminishes, because they all relate to Cuba as the symbol of American oppression, of American anger, of American silliness. Remove that, and you have an opportunity to say, "We're here to talk to you."

RAY SUAREZ: As for Arlene Garcia, she'll return to Cuba this summer for the first time in three years to visit her ailing father. Should his health decline further, Garcia says it's not clear what she would do. Americans can get around the travel ban, though not legally, through Canada and Mexico.

ARLENE GARCIA: In a case where it's an absolute necessity -- of, heaven forbid, my father is not very healthy -- if something were to happen to him, and he would request my presence there, then maybe I would think about having to break the law, because, after all, you know, blood is thicker than anything else.

RAY SUAREZ: Garcia hopes the congressional momentum behind lifting the travel ban leads to political change when the full House considers the issue later this spring.