WASHINGTON — Throughout his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama said that he'd loosen some restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba and rebuild the already slight ties to the communist nation cut by the Bush administration.
With an Obama government soon to become reality, many in the U.S. capital are pushing for much more.
The question of what U.S. Cuban policy will look like under Obama has fed one of the moment's biggest foreign-policy debates, and a loose coalition of legislators, free-trade advocates and leftist groups thinks that it has an ally in the president-elect.
Legislators such as Reps. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., want to pass legislation that would allow all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, which would undo prohibitions that the U.S. government has imposed almost continuously since 1962. That embargo prohibits nearly all trade, travel or other types of exchanges with Cuba.
The Bush administration tightened those regulations even further in 2004 by allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island only once every three years rather than once a year, as previous rules had allowed.
Those who support lifting the travel ban argue that history is on their side. The nearly 50-year-old embargo has failed to promote democracy and freedom, they say, and has even helped Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, stay in power.
"If you've been running the same play for 40 years and you're not getting results, why not change the play?" Emerson asked. "It's time to move forward. If we can lift the status of our relations with North Korea or a country like Libya, why can't we do it with Cuba?"
Business groups such as the Washington-based National Foreign Trade Council, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Retail Federation go even further, advocating "the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions in Cuba," according to a letter that a coalition of business groups sent to Obama.
Farmers, in particular, seek the cancellation of 2005 Bush administration rules that require U.S. exporters to be paid in cash before they ship farm products to Cuba.
In 2001, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that the overall trade embargo cost U.S. exporters up to $1.2 billion a year.
"The ultimate goal is the removal of the entire embargo," said Jake Colvin, the National Foreign Trade Council's vice president on global trade issues. "Engagement furthers American values more than isolation does. We don't do these things to help the Cuban government. We do this for the Cuban people."
Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said that about 50 legislators from both parties supported canceling the travel ban.
Obama doesn't need congressional approval to cancel the 2004 restrictions on Cuban-American travel because they were issued through the Treasury Department. He's also said that he'll unilaterally cancel restrictions that permit authorized travelers to carry only $300 per trip rather than the $3,000 that was allowed previously.
"There will be major changes, there's no doubt," Delahunt said. "President Obama was clear. We want to move in a different direction."
Longtime opponents to closer U.S.-Cuba ties, such as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said legislators long had shown with their votes that they were against loosening the trade and travel restrictions and wouldn't change course next year despite the change in administration.
Nonetheless, Diaz-Balart said the fight to preserve the restrictions promised to be tough.
"It does make it more difficult, but I'm still optimistic because we still have strong bipartisan support in Congress on the big picture," Diaz-Balart said. "(Obama) could do a lot, and the White House has a lot of power. But here, I take him at his word that he supports the embargo."
Analysts said the political equation also had changed with shifting attitudes in Florida's Hispanic population, whose anti-Castro stance long has shaped U.S. Cuba policy.
According to exit polls, Obama won 55 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote despite losing among Cuban-Americans, meaning that he could be less beholden to Cuban-American interests, analysts said.
Even among Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County in South Florida, 55 percent of those questioned told pollsters that they favored ending the U.S. embargo, according to a recent study by Florida International University.
"The prospect of change in 2009 looks better than ever, but it's not going to come easy," Anya Landau French, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based research center, said at a recent forum on U.S. Cuba policy. "Cuba is still a back-burner issue."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has supported loosening restrictions on exchanges with Cuba, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has opposed such changes, Landau French said.
More significantly, Obama and the new Congress will have their hands full with the economic meltdown and will have little time left for Cuba policy, said Daniel Erikson, a senior associate at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research center.
Erikson predicted that Obama would fulfill pledges to undo Bush regulations on Cuban-American travel and remittances and open more dialogue with the Cuban government. Any other moves would be prompted by unexpected overtures from the Cuban government, he said.
Under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which codified and expanded the embargo, the restrictions would be lifted if the Cuban government released political prisoners, allowed more political rights and initiated free elections.
"It might be just too much too fast," Erikson said. "And the question is where would the initiative come from? It's not going to come from the congressional leadership. So will it come from the administration?"
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2008