Whenever someone asked me why we have the same anachronistic policy toward an island nation 90 ninety from our shores that we have had for half a century, I generally tell them that Cuba simply "doesn't matter." In a big-picture sense, our policy hasn't changed (or has only gotten hotter) since the Cold War ended and left two combatants behind on the field.
But this week, Cuba finally mattered, and it tested the resolve of a US president. After nearly a week of brinksmanship over bigger, far more sensitive issues played out, there were a slew of bills ready to be packaged and voted on by a weary, anxious-to-get-out-of-here Congress, but for a provision that would have ruined the Christmas and New Year holidays for thousands of Cuban Americans and their families in Cuba. But after House Republicans filed a bill yesterday morning offering Democrats a take-it-or-leave it choice on their Consolidated Appropriations Bill for FY 2012, a White House seeking to protect a campaign promise fulfilled - unrestricted family travel to Cuba - prevailed, and the House leadership agreed to remove the offending provision if Senate Democrats would then move the agreed upon bill. The bill to be voted on is here, and the Cuba provision had been in Division C (Section 634 — which is gone).
Count me among those who doubted the president and the Congress. Not at first, of course. For months I thought the president's veto threat was enough to settle the Cuba question early. But for the Cuba provision to stay in the bill nearly to the very end tells us that the House Republican leadership — presumably urged on by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — believed the president and the Senate Democrats would cave. It also reminds us how very much Cuba matters to a certain few. It was a sobering reminder to all the Cuban Americans these few claim to represent how very far these representatives would go to pursue their personal ideology on Cuba — regardless of whom in their districts it might harm.
The White House stood firm and stood up for those Cuban Americans, and Senator Reid stood by the president (he's not exactly a Cuba sanctions reformer). But there were casualties, to the lobby no one thought would lose.
Two provisions that would have simplified one-way food trade (exports) to Cuba, and made our exports more competitive without offering Cuba any credit, were dropped — even one that had been adopted for several years in a row to define how to comply with the cash-in-advance terms of the trade. This latter provision, because it was always tied to the fiscal year, had no practical effect but was symbolically important to the agriculture community nonetheless, and it telegraphed to them that Congress understood their priorities even if it couldn't manage to enact them fully. I imagine there will be plenty of questions about why provisions that would help America's export standing, and help feed the Cuban people (something Cuban agriculture reforms have still not achieved) had to come out in order to save Christmas for thousands of Cuban Americans who shouldn't have been on the block either. Who goes after food trade in this day and age, particularly after Congress resolved never again to use food as a weapon with the passage of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000? To the two or three congressmembers for whom their personal obsession with punishing Cuba's leaders — regardless of who gets hurt in the process — matters most of all.