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Debate on the Overall Direction of U.S. Policy
Over the years, although U.S. policymakers have agreed on the overall objectives of U.S. policy toward Cuba--to help bring democracy and respect for human rights to the island--there have been several schools of thought about how to achieve those objectives. Some advocate a policy of keeping maximum pressure on the Cuban government until reforms are enacted, while continuing current U.S. efforts to support the Cuban people. Others argue for an approach, sometimes referred to as constructive engagement, that would lift some U.S. sanctions that they believe are hurting the Cuban people, and move toward engaging Cuba in dialogue. Still others call for a swift normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations by lifting the U.S. embargo.
Fidel Castro's initially provisional, and now permanent, departure as head of government could eventually foster a re-examination of U.S. policy. In this new context, there are two broad policy approaches to contend with political change in Cuba: a status-quo approach that would maintain the U.S. dual-track policy of isolating the Cuban government while providing support to the Cuban people; and an approach aimed at influencing the Cuban government and Cuban society through increased contact and engagement. (For additional information, see CRS Report RS22742, Cuba's Political Succession: From Fidel to Raul Castro. Also see CRS Report RL33622, Cuba's Future Political Scenarios and U.S. Policy Approaches, written in the aftermath of Fidel Castro's stepping down from power in July 2006.)
In general, those who advocate easing U.S. sanctions on Cuba make several policy arguments. They assert that if the United States moderated its policy toward Cuba--through increased travel, trade, and diplomatic dialogue--then the seeds of reform would be planted, which would stimulate and strengthen forces for peaceful change on the island. They stress the importance to the United States of avoiding violent change in Cuba, with the prospect of a mass exodus to the United States and the potential of involving the United States in a civil war scenario. They argue that since the demise of Cuba's does not appear imminent, even without Fidel Castro at the helm, the United States should espouse a more pragmatic approach in trying to induce change in Cuba. Supporters of changing policy also point to broad international support for lifting the U.S. embargo, to the missed opportunities for U.S. businesses because of the unilateral nature of the embargo, and to the increased suffering of the Cuban people because of the embargo. Proponents of change also argue that the United States should be consistent in its policies with the world's few remaining communist governments, including China or Vietnam, and also maintain that moderating policy will help advance human rights.
On the other side, opponents of changing U.S. policy maintain that the current two-track policy of isolating Cuba, but reaching out to the Cuban people through measures of support, is the best means for realizing political change in Cuba. They point out that the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 sets forth the steps that Cuba needs to take in order for the United States to normalize relations. They argue that softening U.S. policy at this time without concrete Cuban reforms would boost the Castro regime, politically and economically, and facilitate the survival of the communist regime. Opponents of softening U.S. policy argue that the United States should stay the course in its commitment to democracy and human rights in Cuba, and that sustained sanctions can work. Opponents of loosening U.S. sanctions further argue that Cuba's failed economic policies, not the U.S. embargo, are the causes of Cuba's difficult living conditions.
Restrictions on Travel and Remittances
Restrictions on travel to Cuba have been a key and often contentious component of U.S. efforts to isolate the communist government of Fidel Castro for much of the past 40 years. Over time there have been numerous changes to the restrictions and for five years, from 1977 until 1982, there were no restrictions on travel. Restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba are part of the CACR, the overall embargo regulations administered by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Major arguments made for lifting the Cuba travel ban are that it contributes to the suffering of Cuban families; it hinders efforts to influence conditions in Cuba and may be aiding Castro by helping restrict the flow of information; it abridges the rights of ordinary Americans; and Americans can travel to other countries with communist or authoritarian governments. Major arguments in opposition to lifting the Cuba travel ban are that more American travel would support Castro's rule by providing his government with potentially millions of dollars in hard currency; that there are legal provisions allowing travel to Cuba for humanitarian purposes that are used by thousands of Americans each year; and that the President should be free to restrict travel for foreign policy reasons.
Under the current Bush Administration, enforcement of U.S. restrictions on Cuba travel has increased, and restrictions on travel and on private remittances to Cuba have been tightened. In March 2003, the Administration eliminated travel for people-to-people educational exchanges unrelated to academic course work. In June 2004, the Administration significantly restricted travel, especially family travel, and the provision of private humanitarian assistance to Cuba in the form of remittances and gift parcels. In April 2005, OFAC cracked down on certain religious organizations promoting licensed travel to Cuba and warned them not to abuse their license by taking individuals not affiliated with their organizations. OFAC's actions were prompted by reports that groups practicing the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria had been taking large groups to Cuba as a means of skirting U.S. travel restrictions. (45) In 2006, the Administration suspended the licenses of several travel service providers, including one of the largest such providers in Florida, La Estrella de Cuba. Several religious organizations also had their licenses suspended, and church groups and several Members of Congress expressed concern about more restrictive licenses for religious travel. (46)
Among the June 2004 restrictions that remain in place are the following:
* Family visits were restricted to one trip every three years under a specific license and are restricted to immediate family members, with no exceptions. Under previous regulations, family visits could occur once a year under a general license, with travel more than once a year allowed, but under a specific license. Previously travel had been allowed to visit relatives to within three degrees of relationship to the traveler.
* Cash remittances, estimates of which range from $400 million to $800 million, were further restricted. Quarterly remittances of $300 may still be sent, but are now restricted to members of the remitter's immediate family and may not be remitted to certain government officials and certain members of the Cuban Communist Party. The regulations were also changed to reduce the amount of remittances that authorized travelers may carry to Cuba, from $3000 to $300.
* Gift parcels were limited to immediate family members and were denied to certain Cuban officials and certain members of the Cuban Communist Party. The contents of gift parcels may no longer include seeds, clothing, personal hygiene items, veterinary medicines and supplies, fishing equipment and supplies, or soap-making equipment.
* The authorized per diem allowed for a family visit was reduced from the State Department per diem rate (currently $179 per day for Havana) to $50 per day.
* With the exception of informational materials, licensed travelers may not purchase or otherwise acquire merchandise and bring it back into the United States. Previous regulations allowed visitors to Cuba to import $100 worth of goods as accompanied baggage.
* Fully-hosted travel, by a person not subject to U.S. jurisdiction, was prohibited as a permissible category of travel.
* Travel for educational activities was further restricted, including the elimination of educational exchanges sponsored by secondary schools.
There was mixed reaction to the tightening of Cuba travel and remittance restrictions. Supporters maintain that the increased restrictions deny the Cuban government dollars that help maintain its repressive control. Opponents argue that the tightened sanctions are anti-family and only result in more suffering for the Cuban people. There were also concerns that the new restrictions were drafted without considering the full consequences of their implementation. For example, the elimination of fully-hosted travel raised concerns about the status of 70 U.S. students receiving full scholarships at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who were instrumental in the establishment of the scholarship program for U.S. students, expressed concern that the students may be forced to abandon their medical education because of the new OFAC regulations. As a result of these concerns, OFAC ultimately licensed the medical students in August 2004 to continue their studies and engage in travel-related transactions.
On July 19, 2007, the U.S. International Trade Commission issued a report, requested by the Senate Committee on Finance, maintaining that lifting travel restrictions would result in travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba rising to between 550,000 and 1 million from an estimate of 171,000 in 2005.
Legislative Initiatives. From 2000-2004, one or both houses of Congress approved amendments to appropriations bills that would have eased restrictions on travel to Cuba in various ways, but these provisions ultimately were stripped out of final enacted measures. The Administration regularly threatened to veto legislation if it contained provisions weakening Cuba sanctions.
In the first session of the 110th Congress, two Senate Appropriations Committee reported-versions of appropriations bills had provisions that would have eased restrictions on travel to Cuba for the marketing and sale of agricultural and medical goods, but ultimately these provisions were not included in the FY2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 110-161). The Senate version of the FY2008 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, reported July 19, 2007, H.R. 2829, had a provision in Section 620 that would eased such travel restrictions, while the Senate version of the FY2008 Agriculture appropriations bill, S. 1859, reported July 24, 2007, had such a provision in Section 741.
In the second session of the 110th Congress, the House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2009 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill on June 25, 2008, that includes provisions easing restrictions on family travel. The bill would liberalize family travel to Cuba by allowing for such travel once a year (instead of the current restriction of once every three years) and allowing such travel to visit aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and first cousins (instead of currently being limited to immediate family members). The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government had approved the measure on June 17.
The Senate version of the bill, S. 3260 (S.Rept. 110-417), reported out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on July 14, 2007, includes provisions easing restrictions on family travel and on travel to Cuba relating to the commercial sale of agricultural and medical goods. With regard to family travel (section 620), the bill would provide that no funds may be used to administer, implement, or enforce the Administration's …