How the House spending bill could prove a lump of coal for Cuban-Americans' holidays

A provision into the omnibus spending bill being negotiated in Congress this week could present a terrible quandary for thousands of Cuban-Americans, warns guest blogger Anya Landau French.

If Republican leaders in the House get their way in omnibus spending bill negotiations this week, hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans now accustomed to a freedom few other Americans enjoy – the right to travel to Cuba without US government intervention – could lose it.  A provision House leaders are pushing in final round negotiations this week would subject hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to a Bush administration rule allowing them just one visit home every three years, no exceptions.  The measure, championed by a Cuban-American, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida, is one of just a few controversial riders still to be worked out in order to advance legislation this week to fund numerous government agencies. 

President Barack Obama confidently campaigned on lifting family travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans back in 2008.  He delivered on that promise, and judging by the numbers of travelers, it was a politically popular move.  So when House appropriators originally adopted Mr. Diaz-Balart’s provision last summer, White House advisors threatened, in a formal Statement of Administration Policy, to recommend a veto if the final bill contained changes to the president’s Cuba policy. 

That should have been the end of it – as it routinely was whenever the Bush administration threatened to veto easing the Cuba travel rules, something the then-Republican Congress voted to do repeatedly.  It then fell to Republican congressional leaders to spare the president from actually vetoing a major spending bill over such a small – indeed, parochial – issue.  But while President Bush could then count on GOP leaders controlling both chambers, the Democrats only control the Senate. 

But press accounts suggest that House Republican leaders are pushing to retain the provision, which begs the question, why?  Reinstating draconian rules on what is widely considered a key constituency in a key presidential election battleground state hardly seems the right way to court swing Cuban-American voters.  While a surprising number of younger Cuban-Americans haven’t yet become registered to vote, this is the sort of thing that could make a significant portion of the Cuban-American community get better organized and rally to the president. 

It’s also hard to imagine why House Speaker John Boehner, who reportedly wants to pass this spending bill, would jeopardize its passage over such a parochial issue.  Maybe he’s doing the three Republican, pro-embargo Cuban-American lawmakers a very big favor, and in exchange securing their support for whatever the final spending package looks like.  Or, perhaps he’s hoping to use the issue to extract some other concessions from the Democrats.  Or, maybe he’s counting on the Democrats being unwilling to give up a potential agreement on a major spending bill, despite the embarrassment the president would suffer if he decided to sign a bill into law – after advisors threatened a possible veto – that expressly overturned his own policies toward Cuba. 

Whatever their reasons, if the House Republican leaders get their way, passage of the Diaz-Balart provision would present a terrible quandary for thousands of Cuban-Americans on their way or already home for the holidays this year: They could be barred from spending Christmas in Cuba with their families.  Or, worse, some might once again face a choice no family should face: whether to go to a dying relative’s deathbed or their funeral.

Merry Christmas, Cuban-American families.  Looks like all Santa may have for you this year – and the two years after that – could be a shiny lump of coal.

--- Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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