There was little smoke and even less fire on Capitol Hill after Cuban leader Fidel Castro announced he was stepping down as president last month.
The news that Castro’s younger brother, Raúl, was formally taking over after a near-50-year reign by Fidel might seem an opportune time for those who want to liberalize travel and trade with the country.
“There is an effort to get grass-roots constituents to call Congressmen who are in their districts. Now is the time for engagement,” said Mavis Anderson of the Latin America Working Group, which has about 6,000 grass-roots activists.
Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a pro-Cuba trade policy group, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s obviously a moment to stop and consider whether we should continue doing what we’re doing,” said Stephens, whose group has a list of 9,000 subscribers.
But despite these efforts and those of other groups favoring trade with Cube to rally their supporters to blanket the Hill, offices of districts with a large number of Cuban exiles said they haven’t seen much of a spike in constituent interest.
The Washington, D.C., and district offices of Members from Florida and New Jersey, which have two of the largest U.S.-Cuban exile populations, said the response was tepid compared to July 2006, when Fidel Castro temporarily gave his brother leadership authority because of his ailing health.
In part, that’s because the lobbying community of Cuban exiles — who want no change in U.S-Cuba policy until there are free elections and other reforms — is among the country’s most powerful and effective.
Unable to build a groundswell of attention, there has nonetheless been some Congressional action, with a large number of lawmakers signing on to a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling for the U.S. to review its current Cuba policy.
The Senate, led by Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), sent a letter last week to Rice, following a similar effort by more than 100 House Members.
“There is no magic U.S. policy that will transform Cuba,” the Senators wrote to Rice. “But with Cuba facing a period of change, we have a new opportunity to seize.”
While pro-Cuba groups aren’t expecting much to change before the November elections, they still are trying to push Members to hold hearings in an effort to gather some momentum for change.
Stephens said that middle grounds between the two sides would be to ease travel restrictions, look at how effectively pro-democracy money is being used, and study the overall effects of the trade embargo. The embargo has been in effect since 1962, making it one of the longest in modern history.
Yet those efforts could be thwarted by a very active effort by Members of Cuban descent to see that nothing changes until Cuba changes. They are calling for Cuba to release political prisoners, hold free elections and allow freedom of the press before the U.S. re-evaluates its position.
“[Fidel Castro] is still a source of power,” said Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (R-Fla.), who is of Cuban descent. “However, it does really re-emphasize the fact that he is obviously very very ill.”
Diaz-Balart says nothing can happen until substantive changes in Cuba happen. His brother, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), holds a similar views and is pushing for further legislation that insists Cuba hold free elections.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, who heads the powerful U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, agrees.
“The [House] letter had 104 Members, none of those 104 Members were a surprise,” Claver-Carone said. “There was not anyone that you would say in the past had supported sanctions. They still have 114 more to go to be able to effectuate any change, and then I’ll start worrying.”