CubaNews / April 2003
By Larry Luxner
Back in his college days, liberal Bill Delahunt ran the Vermont Students for Kennedy campaign. Across the country in Arizona, conservative Jeff Flake headed the Barry Goldwater Institute.
Both men went on to become respected members of Congress, and today, Delahunt (D-MA) and Flake (R-AZ) co-chair the House of Representatives’ 50-member Cuba Working Group. Their objective: to change U.S. policy toward Cuba through legislation that would — among other things — relax the travel ban, expand trade opportunities and kill the Helms-Burton Act.
“Obviously, our politics are as disparate as one could imagine,” says Delahunt of his Republican counterpart. “But the intersection of left and right occurs more frequently than the public appreciates, and these are individual liberty issues.”
Adds Flake: “The fact that the two of us are involved shows this isn’t a philosophical issue. We have support across the political spectrum to change our Cuba policy.”
Delahunt, interviewed at his Capitol Hill office, last month participated in a five-day mission to Havana along with Flake and six other CWG members: Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Dennis Moore (D-KS), Butch Otter (R-ID), Denny Rehberg (R-MT) and John Tanner (D-TN).
That Mar. 7-11 fact-finding trip was the largest congressional delegation ever to visit Cuba, and it included meetings with Cuba’s minister of external trade, Raúl de la Nuez; Alimport chief Pedro Alvarez and prominent dissident Vladimiro Roca, as well as a four-hour schmooze with Fidel Castro.
“It was a short meeting,” quipped the 61-year-old Delahunt, who has spoken with Castro numerous times during his dozen or so trips to the island. On the other hand, Flake refused to meet the Cuban leader, telling us that “we had limited time, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend four hours hearing Fidel talk about the wonders of socialism.”
Following the lawmakers’ return, CWG members indicated they will support changes to U.S. policy that would make bilateral trade more cost-effective in two ways.
The first would allow Cuba to use dollars in paying for U.S. agricultural commodities under the Trade Sanctions Reform Act of 2000 (TSRA), while the second would save the island substantial shipping costs by allowing vessels to be unloaded more quickly after docking at Cuban ports.
The CWG also issued a statement blasting the subsequent arrest of 78 dissidents, independent journalists and others who had met with the delegation as well as with James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana.
At the same time, however, the lawmakers are urging President Bush to end a policy they say hasn’t worked for over 40 years.
“The United States has profound differences with Cuba, but our policy works against our own interests. By blocking a flow of people, commerce and ideas, we have created an embargo on American principles,” the CWG statement declared.
“The way to advance our ideals is to put Americans in contact with Cubans,” it said. “Therefore, our top priority this year will be to end the travel ban. We need to tear down the wall we have built that separates Americans from Cubans. Our government has no reason to impose criminal penalties on Americans for normal travel to Cuba — especially at a time when we need every law-enforcement resource to be used in the war on terrorism.”
Delahunt said his fascination with Cuba dates back to 1960, when he campaigned enthusiastically for JFK at Middlebury College along with fraternity brother Ron Brown, who would later become U.S. secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration.
“I was always interested in politics, and I came from that generation that was amazed by Jack Kennedy,” he said. Delahunt graduated from Middlebury in 1963, then earned a law degree from Boston College in 1967.
Delahunt’s first trip to Cuba was in 1988, while still a district attorney in Boston, where he specialized in domestic violence and sexual assault. At that time, he was asked by the Human Rights Project to document the plight of Cuban political prisoners.
“Along with Bruce Morrison and [federal district court judge] David Nelson, we spent an entire day at the Combinado del Este interviewing prisoners,” he said. “We were invited by the Cuban government, and we met Fidel. That obviously piqued my interest in Cuba.”
In 1996, Delahunt was elected to Congress, representing the 10th District of Massachusetts — long considered the nation’s most Democratic state. The district includes Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Boston’s South Shore from Delahunt’s native Quincy to the town of Plymouth.
Delahunt currently serves on the Western Hemisphere and Europe subcommittees, as well as the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Internet and intellectual property. He assumed Democratic leadership of the Cuba Working Group — along with Flake on the Republican side — upon the CWG’s formation last year.
“What you see now is a convergence of influences,” said the congressman, whose office walls are decorated with navigational charts of Cape Cod.
“There hadn’t been a debate on Cuba in this country for decades. I think the advent of the Cuba Working Group for the first time created a mechanism for coordinating interest in legislation, doing something within Congress in a way that has some structure to it. In the past, individual members would file bills and receive a few co-sponsors — but there was nothing coordinated or focused.”
Delahunt said he knew change was in the air when he and Flake were invited to speak last year at an exploratory meeting at Miami’s Biltmore Hotel a year ago — an event expected to attract no more than 100 people.
“Instead, 300 to 400 came. We were both very surprised,” Delahunt said. “That signaled a shift within the Cuban-American community, at the same time you have the business community focused on Cuba. And they have considerable political influence in areas that are traditionally Republican.”
Asked why he’s against the embargo, Delahunt said: “It’s silly. It has clearly proven its ineffectiveness. Even Dick Cheney recognized that during the [2000 presidential] campaign. When posed that question, he admitted that sanctions haven’t worked all that well.”
Delahunt added: “It’s irrefutable that, if the rationale for the embargo is to bring democratic change to Cuba, it has failed. It’s absurd to continue this policy.”
To drive home his point, he insists that “if you happen to be in Baghdad right now, you can walk into any retail store and use your American Express card. But not in Cuba.” Other totalitarian regimes like China and North Korea — not to mention “the most repressive government in the world, Saudi Arabia” — are also open to U.S. investment, the lawmaker pointed out.
“Our inconsistency, I dare say, impacts negatively on our claim to a certain moral authority in the international order,” Dela-hunt told CubaNews. “I’m not an apologist for Fidel Castro, but the vast majority of Americans do not embrace these policies.”
That’s why Delahunt says his No. 1 priority is lifting the travel ban as soon as possible.
“I find it particularly offensive as an American that my right to travel is restricted,” he said. “The Cold War is over, and Cuba is not a threat. Fidel is exporting doctors rather than revolutions now. I know that he’s intelligent, and aware of the fact that Cuba has to insert itself into the global economy if they wish to survive.”
Despite the difficulties of traveling legally to Cuba, Delahunt noted that during his recent stay at Havana’s Hotel Nacional, “I was constantly running into people from Massachusetts” — including Harvard college students, a visiting group involved with independent libraries and another group dedicated to helping Cubans with physical disabilities.
“Clearly these people are motivated by humanitarian causes,” he said, adding that “I don’t know whether the Cubans really understand the magnitude of the deluge of Americans that will come to Cuba once the travel restrictions are removed.”
During a recent conversation with Castro about the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, Delahunt warned the Cuban leader that “next time we invade, we’re going to win” because the United States has a secret weapon.
“When Castro asked what that weapon was, I told him two words: spring break,” Dela-hunt recalled, laughing. “At that point, he raised his hands and said, ‘I surrender!’”
David Radlo, whose Boston-based Radlo Foods has sold 40 million eggs worth around $2 million to Alimport, thinks Delahunt has done “an excellent job” trying to improve relations between the United States and Cuba.
“I think his efforts and hard work are self-evident, and I stand behind him,” said Radlo, who has a residence in Harwich, which is in Delahunt’s district.
“The fact we can’t get paid directly [for food exports] limits our ability to sell to Cuba. It’s all a bunch of complicated rules, and you also have to deal with currency adjustment flows. This ties up your staff’s time, chasing third-party transactions,” he said. “With a change in the finance laws, we could get paid directly from Cuba right to our company. That would be very beneficial, and I know Delahunt is in support of that.”
Rob Sequin is CEO of Cuban Ventures.com, an online news service based in the Cape Cod town of Yarmouthport, which is also in Delahunt’s district.
“The congressman’s staff has been a fantastic source of information and has introduced me to some very knowledgeable and influential people in the Cuba arena,” said Sequin. “I strongly support his efforts to ease the trade and travel restrictions.”
But the Cuba Working Group has its critics, and one New York-based analyst said the group is quickly becoming irrelevant.
“The perception now is that it’s being guided by left-of-center Democrats, and that’s causing concern for the Republican members,” said the analyst, who asked not to be named. “They haven’t accomplished anything. There’s nothing they can point to.”
He also complained that Delahunt “wants to change TSRA to allow for payment terms or bank financing, but the companies don’t want that. They want to maintain the cash-only relationship they have now. The CWG is so hell-bent on changing policy that they’re not focusing on whether or not the specific changes they advocate may be detrimental at this time to specific constituencies.”
But Delahunt staunchly defends his policies, saying that private financing should be allowed for companies that want it.
“They have the option to insist upon trade on a cash-only basis. But if we want to open up and make [U.S. exports] competitive, then private financing should be available,” said the congressman. “No one is compelled to lend money and utilize credit. I believe this should be left to the marketplace.”