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With the Republican takeover in the House, the top-ranking position on the Foreign Relations Committee flips from Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), an advocate of Cuba policy reform, to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American from Miami referred to by the Castro government media as “The Ferocious Wolf” for her stalwart defense of the U.S. embargo. Rising Republican star and senator-elect Marco Rubio is also Cuban-American, and has professed firm allegiance to the policy.
“The founding generation of Cuban emigres — exiles like Ros-Lehtinen and her parents — arrived in Miami traumatized, their lives uprooted and their homes and possessions confiscated,” wrote Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba analyst, in a recent essay for Foreign Policy.
“They rarely if ever returned to the island, and in their long absence constructed a nostalgic image of Cuba that bore little resemblance to reality. They looked at the American policy toward Cuba as a means of catharsis and compensation; with their support, the embargo went from being a means of achieving a policy — the strategic containment of communism — to a policy goal unto itself.”
While recent polls show a major shift in Cuban-American attitudes about the embargo and travel restrictions in favor of a great opening, that hasn’t produced Cuban-American leaders willing to challenge venerable anti-Castro credos.
A bill that would lift prohibitions on American travel to Cuba and ease restrictions on U.S. agricultural sales to the island was approved in the Foreign Affairs committee in June, but it now appears that the lame-duck Congress will let the bill die.
The Obama administration could make changes to U.S. travel restrictions by executive order, instructing the Treasury Department to stop enforcing sanctions against Americans who go to Cuba without permission. But few believe Obama has the stomach for a bitter fight over an issue that would deliver limited political benefits.
According to dissident Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Obama’s political fortunes will have a significant impact on the lives of ordinary Cubans, who have benefited from his policies allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island and send more money to their relatives.
“For Cubans, Obama’s diminishing power will also become an obstacle (for change). The measures that have allowed for more Cuban-American travel, fewer restrictions on sending money to family members, and an increase in the number of cultural exchanges have brought our countries closer.”