Both hopes for and fears of significant changes in Cuba policies during President Barack Obama’s second term heightened Friday with the nomination of Sen. John Kerry as the next U.S. Secretary of State.
The Massachusetts Democrat in the past has endorsed the embargo but proposed allowing all travel to the island, including tourist trips, and criticized both Radio/TV Marti and the U.S. government’s pro-democracy programs in Cuba.
His nomination to succeed Hillary Clinton is expected to sail through Senate confirmation because Kerry has served in the Senate since 1984 and chairs the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Kerry’s long-telegraphed move to the State Department won applause from backers of the Obama administration’s policy of expanding ties and assistance to the Cuban people while waiting for the government to move toward democracy and human rights.
“The president’s positions on Cuba are clear, and he (Kerry) is a good pick to implement them,” said Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat elected to Congress last month. “He’s a thoughtful, experienced foreign policy expert.”
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat who is likely to succeed Kerry as chairman of the foreign relations committee, favors strong sanctions on Cuba. He praised Kerry for his knowledge of foreign policy but did not mention his stands on Cuba.
“The high-level relationships that he has built with world leaders will allow him to step seamlessly into the position and to ensure that there is no decline in U.S. leadership on important global issues during a transition,” Menendez said.
Even Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the pro-sanctions U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, described Kerry as “reasonable and willing to listen to all sides.”
During his first term Obama lifted almost all limits on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island and reopened educational “people-to-people” visits by all U.S. residents, although tourism remains banned. Further openings were stalled by Cuba’s detention of Alan Gross, a Maryland man serving a15-year sentence in Havana on charges Washington views as spurious.
But Kerry’s impending move to the State Department also sparked fears among some Cuban-Americans that he will be too willing to seek accommodations with Havana and other repressive governments around the world.
“He comes from a mentality that can tolerate a dictatorship like Cuba’s but cannot tolerate that a (U.S.) person can’t travel to Cuba” because the U.S. government wants to deny tourist dollars to Havana, said Miami radio commentator Ninoska Perez Castellón.
Kerry backed the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, a 2009 bill that would have allowed unrestricted travel to Cuba, arguing that U.S. authorities should not limit the right of private citizens to travel anywhere. The bill was never voted on.
The senator also has been critical of the millions of dollars spent on the U.S. government’s Radio/TV Martí, complaining that the stations are badly run and that their biased programming has little or no impact on the island.
“After 18 years TV Martí still has no significant audience in Cuba. U.S. civil society programs may have noble objectives, but we need to examine whether we’re achieving them,” he wrote in a 2009 column on Cuba printed in the Tampa Bay Times.