When the Tribeca Film Festival opens next week, one of the most anticipated of the documentaries will be "The Lost Son of Havana," about Major League baseball legend Luis Tiant's emotional return to his native Cuba to visit long-lost relatives.
The underlying theme of the pic, directed by Jonathan Hock, is the impact of the embargo that has defined U.S. and Cuban relations for almost a half century, outlasting even the Cold War itself.
In light of President Obama's announcement this week that he would lift restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting their relatives, the documentary may seem out of date by the time of its debut. But with efforts afoot to lift restrictions even further, including a bill in Congress to lift the travel ban entirely, advocates in the entertainment industry are lobbying for further changes in U.S. policy.
Their motives range from a desire to increase cultural changes between the U.S. and Cuba, to a firm belief that the 47-year-old embargo just has not worked, and has merely contributed to the hardship of the Cuban people.
Tiant, who expresses guilt at the poverty suffered by those his family knew after they left Cuba, told the New York Daily News, "My point of view is if all the countries around the world do business with Cuba, why can't the U.S.?"
The advocacy efforts have created some tension among donors and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the son of Cuban immigrants, has been a staunch foe of any efforts to soften the embargo.
Some donors have been upset by Menendez's tactics, to the point where they question his ability to lead the chief fund-raising arm for Senate Democrats while holding what they regard as an antiquated position. Last month, they were particularly miffed when he held up a 2009 omnibus spending bill for four days in protest of provisions that would have eased some Cuba restrictions.
Political consultant Andy Spahn, whose clients include industry figures such as Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, has traveled to Cuba numerous times as part of special delegations and is urging support for a lifting of the travel ban.
Spahn says, "Senator Menendez, as part of the Senate leadership, had no business holding the president's omnibus spending bill hostage for four days over some minor policy tweaks, regarding U.S. Cuba relations. His extreme right wing views on these issues are out of step with his colleagues in the Senate, the administration and the nation.
"His actions will definitely hurt his fund-raising efforts as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee."
Political strategist Darius Anderson, CEO of Platinum Advisers in San Francisco, said that "many of us who have been Democratic fund-raisers and Democratic givers over a lot of years, and when we found out about this, we were disappointed. It really was a setback to the cause.
Anderson, who has led delegations from entertainment and other industries to Cuba, said that "there were a number of people who opted not to attend a series of events out here," but he stopped short of calling it an organized movement against Menendez. Other fund-raisers say that the biggest challenge Menendez faces is donor fatigue, coming off a record breaking year of giving and going into an ever more dismal period for the economy.
A spokesman for the DSCC provided no immediate comment, but Menendez has said that his positions on Cuba have been consistent. He takes an opposite approach, arguing that many other countries have engaged in trade and made investments in Cuba yet "the regime has not opened up; on the contrary, it has used resources to become more oppressive."
"Anyone who knows me knows my views are both heartfelt and principled," he told the Washington Post. "It should be of no surprise to anyone that I have used political capital in my many years in the House and the Senate on this issue."
Hollywood's fascination with Cuba extends not just to documentaries and movies like "Che" and "Before Night Falls," but to the parade of prominent figures who have obtained clearances to visit the country, often with great fanfare and a hint of controversy. Sean Penn interviewed Raul Castro for "The Nation" last year. Michael Moore took ailing Sept. 11 rescue workers to Cuba for a scene for his film "Sicko," triggering a Treasury Department investigation for violating the embargo. Les Moonves and other entertainment executives travelled there in 2000 and met with Fidel Castro, inspiring a string of barbs from David Letterman. A delegation also travels there for a film festival in Havana each December.
The bill to lift the travel ban has the support of not just Democrats like Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), but Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the party's senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, who released a report in February that concluded that the embargo "failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people,' while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population."
With Menendez's opposition and that of other prominent Republicans, including Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), the prospects for the bill are uncertain.
Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, noted that, in contrast to previous attempts, the current effort to lift the travel ban has many more co-sponsors. But the real difference is a president who many expect would sign such a bill if it makes it to his desk. "Suddenly, it is a whole new game," she said.
Photo from "The Lost Son of Havana."