Bush's Waning Authority
by Jim Lobe
unexpectedly lop-sided vote by the Republican-led U.S. Senate to
end a 40-year ban on U.S. citizens travelling to Cuba marks another
embarrassing defeat for President George W. Bush.
than two weeks ago the president announced new measures to make
it more difficult for people who travel to the Caribbean island
59-36 vote to lift the ban also signals Bush's weakening hold on
fellow Republicans in Congress, who are trying to assert greater
independence from the administration as they have watched the president's
approval ratings plummet from around 80 percent last spring to less
than 50 percent one year before the 2004 elections.
in the week, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted for
a resolution to convert one-half of the 20 billion dollars Bush
has asked for to finance reconstruction in Iraq to a loan rather
than a grant.
the vote was non-binding, top administration policy-makers were
furious about Republican defections, particularly on the eve of
this week's Iraq donors' conference, where the administration is
lobbying for billions of dollars in pledges and arguing that Iraq's
major creditors should cancel their debts.
would have been inconceivable six months ago," said one Congressional
aide after the Senate vote on Cuba. "But it's clear that more
Republicans are willing to vote against the president."
vote, which prompted an immediate veto threat from the White House,
followed approval of an almost identical provision by the House
on Sep. 9. In spite of furious lobbying by the Republican leadership,
53 Republicans voted with a strong majority of Democrats to end
both houses approved the same wording, which is now attached to
the 2004 Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill, it will be
much more difficult for the Republican congressional leadership
to delete or amend the provision in the House-Senate "conference
committee," which must reconcile the two pieces of legislation
before the final bill can be sent to the president.
in the last several years, the House has approved a provision ending
the travel ban that the Senate had not included it in its version,
the Republican leadership was able to strip it from the underlying
bill in the committee so as not to embarrass Bush, whose consistently
hard line toward Havana is aimed primarily at ensuring the Republican
loyalties of Cuban-American voters in the key battleground state
vote was the first time that the Senate, which had previously approved
exempting food and medicine from Washington's 42-year trade embargo
against Cuba, voted to lift the ban on travel there.
1999 the Senate rejected ending the ban by a vote of 43 to 55. As
noted by the New York Times on Friday, 13 senators who voted
to retain the ban four years ago switched sides Thursday. A total
of 19 Republican senators voted against Bush's position.
large margin of victory caught even some supporters by surprise,
particularly because several Republican senators who voted to back
the president, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman
Richard Lugar, indicated they thought the ban should be lifted,
but that this is not the time to do so, particularly given President
Fidel Castro's unexpectedly harsh crackdown against dozens of dissidents
addition, four Democratic senators who favour lifting the ban were
not present for the vote. As a result, according to some analysts,
the number of senators who oppose the ban came close to the 66
or two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto.
White House officials, confident that a veto would be sustained
particularly in the House told reporters a veto was
likely if the provision survives the conference committee.
the recent crackdown, which included lengthy prison terms for some
of Cuba's most distinguished dissidents, the administration has
argued that Castro has become ever more authoritarian and that providing
new sources of income through tourism would serve only to sustain
the government there.
a material benefit to a regime which only six months ago undertook
the most significant act of political repression in the Americas
in a decade strikes us deeply unwise," a State Department spokesman
said last month.
the same time, the department announced new, albeit largely symbolic,
economic sanctions against Cuba for allegedly failing to curb "human
trafficking" across international borders.
weeks ago, Bush announced several steps he said were meant to speed
the coming of "a new, free, democratic Cuba," including
increasing the number of Cuban immigrants allowed into the United
States, creating a commission to plan "Cuba's transition from
Stalinist rule to a free and open society," and tightening
restrictions on travel there by U.S. citizens.
measures were seen as an effort to appease the anger of hard-line
anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, who were infuriated when Washington
ordered the Coast Guard to return a dozen Cuban refugees it had
intercepted at sea.
current U.S. law, travel to Cuba is allowed for family reunions,
study and research and other limited purposes, but "those exceptions
are too often used as a cover for illegal business travel and tourism,
or to skirt the restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba," Bush
charged in a brief White House rose garden appearance.
tourism perpetuates the misery of the Cuban people," he added.
the past year, the Treasury Department has stepped up inspections,
investigations and fines of people who have travelled to Cuba illegally.
supporters of lifting the ban, which, under the provision approved
by the House and Senate, would be done by denying the Treasury Department
funds to enforce it, have argued that denying citizens the right
to travel to Cuba simply perpetuates a policy that has never worked.
sanctions stop not just the flow of goods, but the flow of ideas,"
said Senator Michael Enzi, a Republican who co-sponsored the provision.
best approach for dealing with communist countries is engagement,"
said Brian Dorgan, a Democrat who also backed the measure.
just days after the president's speech endorsing an enforcement
of the travel ban to Cuba, this is a clear vote of no confidence,"
noted Anya Landau of the Centre for International Policy (CIP),
a think tank that has lobbied for lifting the ban.
to the authoritative 'Congressional Quarterly', the latest vote
suggested that restive Republicans were increasingly prepared to
resist Bush's directions in a series of legislative tests before
Congress recesses next month.
addition to the House's embarrassing rebuff to the aid programme
for Iraq earlier this week, Republican grumbling about the failure
of top Pentagon officials to respond to congressional inquiries
about Iraq grew significantly louder and angrier.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC. Visit
© 2003 Inter Press Service