Chipping away at the embargo

By Michelle Chen Feb 25, 2009

Tucked snugly into a massive House budget bill is a quiet tweak that could reconfigure US-Cuba relations. The provision, which passed along with the House bill today, was shepherded by Rep. José E. Serrano of the Bronx, chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee, senior Puerto Rican representative (and a tough progressive whose unorthordox positions have raised some eyebrows in the past). According to Serrano’s office, the initiative would allow Cuban Americans to:

Visit once per year for as long as they choose; Visit cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles, in addition to parents, grandparents, children and siblings; Spend up to $179 per day while in Cuba

While the legislation wouldn’t lift the embargo, it would loosen some trade restrictions—for instance, lifting the rule that Cuban merchants must pay up front instead of upon arrival for U.S. exports. There would also be more disclosure of how much is spent (or, more pointedly, wasted) to enforce the notoriously unpopular ban. The legislation may get stonewalled in the Senate, but Serrano seems to be angling for Obama’s support for the changes, suggesting that previously, the Bush administration’s veto threat was the main obstacle. Meanwhile, Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is working to crack congressional intransigence. In the introduction to a new committee staff report on Cuba, Lugar says the government “must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. Interests.” (See Steve Clemons’s analysis) True, America’s long, tortured affair with the Castro government might get sidelined as recession and war give Washington bigger fish to fry. But times of crisis could also spur lawmakers to finally consider replacing failing policies with sane ones.