What do the Mid-Term Election Results Mean for US Cuba Policy?

Let’s start with the obvious.  With the Republican takeover of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen becomes the new Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the authorizing committee with jurisdiction over most of Cuba-related legislation.  This means not only that no engagement-oriented Cuba bills will move through that committee, and that very possibly, Ros-Lehtinen might well choose to move legislation through her committee that would tighten the embargo.

This doesn’t mean Cuba reforms can’t move in the House.  Let’s remember that Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake was able to move various incremental reforms on appropriation bills under a Republican-controlled Congress, over the objections of the late Henry Hyde, a staunch embargo supporter who was Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the early 2000’s.  He prevailed several times in earlier Congresses, but President Bush’s repeated veto threats ensured the provisions disappeared in conference negotiations.  Flake noted earlier this fall that he thinks many of the freshman conservatives who won their seats on a pro-freedom, anti-government platform will be hard pressed to vote against a measure that a) restores a basic freedom (travel) to Americans, and b) eliminates needless government spending.

In the Senate, a staunchly pro-embargo Cuban American Republican, Marco Rubio of Florida, will join forces with his staunchly pro-embargo Cuban American Democratic colleague, Bob Menendez.  The level of pro-embargo, anti-engagement speechifying, floor-side colleague arm-twisting and bipartisan sign-on letter-writing and hand-wringing will certainly amp up.  And on the opposite side, it’s still unclear who, if anyone, will fill the shoes of pro-reform and engagement Democrats Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd, both of whom retire at the end of this session (not to mention Agriculture Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln, who just lost her reelection bid).  Dorgan in particular is known to pursue amendments on the Senate floor when no one else will, and he’s put considerable effort, alongside longtime allied Republican Mike Enzi, into their signature Freedom to Travel to Cuba bill, which boasts 40 Senate cosponsors and iffy prospects in the lame duck congressional work period ahead.

In the next Congress, there’s certainly a chance that the vacuum will be filled by remaining and new leaders, like Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, perhaps Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, and then of course incoming Republicans Jerry Moran and John Boozman, both of whom have fought for Cuba policy reforms in the House.

Vacuum or no vacuum in either chamber, Cuba policy isn’t likely to be concretely different next year.  Even if Ileana Ros-Lehtinen moves legislation through her committee and onto the floor (which has the same challenges that pro-reform Cuba bills face – who wants to use precious floor time up on a secondary foreign policy issue?) – it would still die in the Senate.

Today, there are more than 60 votes to move Cuba legislation through the Senate.  The only thing standing in the way of a vote to dispense with a Menendez-driven filibuster of Cuba policy reforms has been a lack of will to run down the clock with bigger priorities always looming.  Now that Byron Dorgan is retiring, he might just make a last effort on Cuba travel, in spite of the very substantial hurdles.  Come January, my quick analysis of the votes – even without knowing where most of the incoming Members stand – is that there will still be more than fifty votes in favor of travel and agriculture trade reforms, far more than would be needed to stop any effort to tighten the embargo.  (Not to mention the obvious obstacle of moving such legislation through committees still controlled by various pro-engagement chairmen, or the usual hurdle of getting floor time for a 2nd tier foreign policy fight.)

So in legislative terms, not much really changes, other than that there is likely to be a discernable drop, at least initially, in pro-reform enthusiasm and momentum.

The real impact is in how the elections do or don’t affect the administration’s Cuba policy, or a push to finally craft and implement a coherent, deliverable-oriented policy that doesn’t seem to exist today.  Ileana Ros-Lehtinen can hold all the hearings and hissy fits she wants over the administration’s policy, but the President still retains surprisingly expansive authority to implement reforms if he commits to them.  The question is whether he and his advisors are finally ready to commit, or whether the election results might have given them yet another case of cold feet.  Do they really want to anger Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as she gets ready to take up the gavel?  Would she make it harder for the administration to move the START treaty, manage an ever more difficult and politicized war in Afghanistan, and not to undermine the Middle East peace process?

The answers to these questions aren’t so easy.  Maybe the administration will look to outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Berman to throw himself on his sword over the Cuba travel ban before the end of the current Congress, so the White House can come in and produce a “compromise:” the loosened travel regulations we all know are out there but inexplicably held up somewhere in the White House.

In the end, for this White House, it may just come down to whether you negotiate with foreign policy “hostage takers.”  One thing’s certain: the longer you let a hostage situation fester, the harder it is to come out a winner.

This article originally appeared at TheHavananote.com

Anya Landau French is director of the New America Foundation’s US-Cuba Policy Initiative.  She has traveled regularly to Cuba for research since 2000, and in 2009 published, “Options for Engagement: A Resource Guide for Reforming U.S. Policy Towards Cuba.”

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