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March 10, 2009

Hand-Wringing over Cuba in the Omnibus
Posted by Jake Colvin

Much has been made of three provisions buried in the omnibus appropriations act which pertain to U.S. Cuba policy.

The provisions would authorize travel to Cuba for the purposes of sales and marketing agricultural and medical products to Cuba and would prohibit the enforcement of some changes to Cuba regulations made by the Bush administration via an appropriations strategy known as “de-funding.”  (De-funding provisions are largely symbolic, given that they do not change underlying law.)

These changes to Cuba policy contained in the omnibus appropriations bill are small but important. By including these measures in the bill, Congress can demonstrate a willingness to ease provisions of the embargo on Cuba and a path forward for making future changes.

In between dealing with the banking, mortgage and global financial crises, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner managed to find the time to clarify to Senators Bill Nelson and Bob Menendez in two separate letters the way in which two of the three provisions would be implemented were they to become law. Geithner's response – which has caused Senators Menendez and Nelson to affirm their support for the omnibus bill – has led some to suggest that the Obama administration is somehow limiting the impact of these provisions.

Secretary Geithner’s letters do not indicate that the Obama administration intends to water down the Cuba provisions in the omnibus. His clarifications regarding the travel and cash in advance provisions appear consistent with the intent of Congress. In particular, the omnibus provision regarding marketing and sales of agriculture goods would be an important and very welcome change to current licensing policy, even with the clarifications suggested by Secretary Geithner. 

(The change allows travel by businesspersons for the purposes of "marketing and sale" of agricultural and medical goods under a general license, by which travelers are able to self-determine their eligibility and travel to Cuba without seeking individual authorization.  Current policy requires individuals to apply for approval from the U.S. Department of Treasury under a “specific license.")

Opponents of these provisions have argued that regular order should be followed when considering important foreign policy questions.  While regular order is certainly a valuable principle for Congress to follow when considering important changes to foreign policy, for years congressional leaders circumvented regular order in order to maintain current restrictions on Cuba, removing legislative provisions in conference even when they were passed by both the House and the Senate.

After all is said and done with the omnibus, leaders in the House and Senate ought to take up the calls for regular order and allow for a robust debate on important Cuba-related issues like the resumption of travel by all American citizens to Cuba.  In particular, congressional leaders should allow for votes on these important foreign policy questions, which is a critical component of regular order.  It would also be appropriate for supporters of regular order to throw their support behind complete repeal of the “Section 211” provision of an earlier appropriations bill, a special interest provision which was slipped into the legislation in the dead of night and which violates U.S. trade commitments. 

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Progress with Cuba, for instance, is long overdue. Thank God Cuban-Americans can finally visit their families in Cuba when they want to without a struggle.

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