Davis: Cuban Embargo Is Leverage For Change

Given U.S. Rep. Jim Davis’ recent “fact-finding” sortie to Cuba, it only seemed appropriate to meet over café con leche at Tampa’s El Pilon.

The Tampa congressman is an acknowledged rookie on this still volatile subject and clearly doesn’t want to make ideological or political enemies. The upshot is that he likely won’t make much of a difference either.

Certainly not in the short term. Not someone who “supports change in the (U.S.-Cuba) relationship” while still staunchly supporting the embargo.

“We shouldn’t unilaterally give it up,” states Davis, who considers the embargo as leverage. He has previously noted that it would take a “sea-change in the Cuban government” before bilateral relations could actually be normalized.

“My (5-day) trip was a foundation for dialogue,” he said.

To be fair, Davis, who’s the first member of Florida’s congressional delegation to formally visit communist Cuba, is not satisfied with the status quo and would like to see a more pro-active Administration. That’s why he encourages the Port of Tampa to get involved with legal trade with Cuba as part of “preparing for a Cuba after Castro.” It’s why he supported recent amendments to lift restrictions on the sale of food and medicines to Cuba. His focus, he said, is on “helping the Cuban people.”

He’s also a proponent of change “from within” Cuba. He’s hardly alone.

Even the hard-line Cuban American National Foundation, which has been searching for a post-Elian agenda, now realizes that the best chance for change is from emboldened dissidents — not exile bombast or bombs. In fact, CANF helped set Davis up with some dissident interviews on his visit. (His trip itself was organized by Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank with a dim view of the embargo.)

Davis came away especially impressed with Oswaldo Paya, the leader of the Varela Project, a movement that is seeking a referendum on democratic change. Paya was recently nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize by former Czech President Vaclav Havel. More exiles are beginning to see Paya as the embodiment of a viable internal opposition, heretofore unheard of under Fidel Castro.

“He’s a remarkable person,” said Davis of Paja. “This is not about him. You can see he has a steely resolve to see it (Varela Project) through. He’s inspired over 20,000 Cuban people to stand up and be counted. And they’re still signing. It’s a unifying event. What’s important is that he has engaged the government. Change has to come from within; that’s why Paja is so important.

“Only the Cuban people can plant the seeds of change in Cuba,” stressed Davis, “but we can help these efforts grow. Congress can and should support reform efforts.

“Congress has been taking some steps, but the Administration is doing the opposite — tightening the reins,” Davis said. “We need to try to reframe the debate. Timing is critical. I can play a part. I intend to move forward.”

His first move will be to find out why the medical exemption to the embargo is apparently not working. That was the message he heard in a visit to Faustino Perez University Hospital in Matanzas. Medical supplies and prescription drugs, he was told, were in extremely short supply.

“I will work with my colleagues in Congress and others to give the Cuban people the ability to buy the supplies and drugs they so desperately need,” promised Davis.

Ultimately, of course, significant, across-the-board progress isn’t likely to happen while Castro, 76, remains alive. Even the Cuban people, in moments of mordant candor, will tell you that only the “biological solution” will herald meaningful change.

Meanwhile, more politicians will make “fact-finding” visits, with incremental changes resulting: a few more exchanges, a few more exemptions. Each side holds its own perverse trump card. For the U.S., it’s the 40-something embargo; for Cuba, it’s the 70-something Castro.

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