Cuba Too Dicey an Issue for CHC

Posted May 22, 2009 at 5:43pm

Talk of Cuba policy is taboo in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, even though most of its members support lifting the nearly 50-year trade embargo with the island nation.

Caucus leaders are choosing to ignore their own organizational rules when it comes to Cuba, a politically sensitive issue for two of the 24 Members in the group: Cuban-Americans Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

Caucus bylaws state that the group, which only includes Democrats, will take an official position on an issue when there is a two-thirds majority vote to do so. But in the case of Cuba, that rule has gone out the window in the name of preserving friendships among caucus members.

CHC leaders have decided that deference to the two Cuban-Americans, who are strongly opposed to sending U.S. dollars to a Castro-controlled Cuba, carries more weight than caucus rules or the reality that most Members in the group are ready to begin trading with the neighboring island.

Of course, nobody knows for sure how many members would vote to lift the trade ban since the topic is off-limits.

Cuba policy is “not at all— talked about in caucus meetings because of the difference of opinion among members, CHC Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said.

Instead, she said, it is up to individual Members to stake out their positions.

“This is an issue where there’s no consensus among Hispanic Members,— Velázquez said. “It’s not going to be productive in moving forward other issues.—

But even Velázquez said she has supported previous legislation easing trade and travel restrictions with Cuba.

“There are some, like myself, who believe if we engage the Taliban in Afghanistan, we must engage the Cuban government, who is just 90 miles away from our borders.—

An informal poll of Hispanic caucus members suggests that a majority, if not a two-thirds majority, would support ending the long-standing embargo with Cuba if a vote were to come up.

Even Velázquez said she didn’t think there were “too many now— in the caucus who would vote against lifting the trade ban.

For his part, Sires said he had never heard of the caucus’s two-thirds rule.

“What I know is that they are not taking a position, and I appreciate the fact that they’re not,— Sires said. “It is absolutely the right thing to do because there are many issues that I work on with the Hispanic caucus, and sometimes I have some questions about them.—

The last time the House voted on a Cuban measure was in July 2007, when Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) offered an amendment aimed at easing agricultural trade with Cuba.

The measure failed 182-245, but of the current Hispanic caucus members, eight opposed it and 12 voted for it — exactly two-thirds.

House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), a former CHC leader, said members of the group sometimes vote one way on the floor but a different way in caucus meetings, out of respect to colleagues who feel strongly about certain issues.

“I think that builds a lot of camaraderie within the caucus. It strengthens the bonds of Members,— said Becerra, who supports lifting the Cuban trade embargo.

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), chairman of the CHC Commerce and International Relations Task Force, also said he supports lifting the Cuban embargo. But in terms of talking about the topic in caucus meetings, he added, “This is not the time.—

CHC Vice Chairman Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas) conceded that the caucus “probably has two-thirds— in favor of trading with Cuba. But given that the group’s priority is immigration reform, the need to take on Cuba isn’t so pressing that there has to be a public position, Gonzalez said.

He noted that he has supported lifting the embargo for years and said opposition to doing so is largely a generational issue.

“Of the population of Cuba today, how many were around in 1958, 1959? I’m sorry, it’s a generation that probably believes it should always be the way it is,— Gonzalez said.

Sires said it doesn’t anger him that caucus members are pushing for trade with Cuba because they don’t understand what life is like on the “island prison,— where he lived until he was 11 years old.

“I know what it is to be taught to take apart and put together a machine gun. I know what it is for the military to come into town and remove all the history books that are in Russian,— Sires said.

But Sires said he was surprised when leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus led a delegation to Cuba last month to engage with the Castro brothers.

“You tell me anytime there’s a picture of a Cuban leader, have you ever seen an African-American? Never. So why did they do that? I don’t understand,— Sires said.

The CHC may be trying to steer clear of the topic, but key Democrats are already signaling momentum on Cuban trade in the near term. The biggest sign of movement came from President Barack Obama, who last month eased restrictions on family travel to Cuba.

Congress will “most likely— lift the Cuban embargo before the end of 2010, Rangel declared earlier this month.

Rangel, whose committee has jurisdiction over trade issues, is one of several lawmakers who have filed bills aimed at loosening Cuban trade and travel restrictions.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, already has 158 co-sponsors on his bill to allow U.S. citizens to travel freely to Cuba.

Critics of lifting the embargo say the House has never had the votes to pass measures aimed at unilateral trade with Cuba.

Rangel “got his butt kicked— when he offered the 2007 amendment, said GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), who is Cuban-American. “Clearly, the majority position of Congress is the fact that we should not give unilateral concessions to state-sponsored terrorism.—

The only way to engage with Cuba, he said, is if Cuban leaders agree to concessions including freeing political prisoners, allowing basic freedoms and starting the elections process.