New U.S. Senate Bills Embrace Normalization of Relations with Cuba

A prior post discussed the recent rumors that the Trump Administration, next month, is planning to reverse various aspects of the U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba that commenced on December 17, 2014.

In resistance to this threat, the U.S. Senate this week saw two new bipartisan bills embracing such normalization.

Protecting American Travel to Cuba [1]

On May 25 A bill to allow United States citizens and legal residents to travel between the United States and Cuba (S.1287) was offered by Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) with 54 bipartisan co-sponsors (43 Democrats, 9 Republicans and 2 Independents). It would eliminate current restrictions on traveling to Cuba for tourist purposes completely and permanently deregulate U.S. travel to Cuba.

According to Senator Flake, “Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government. Lifting the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba can pave the way to meaningful change by increasing contact between Cubans and everyday Americans, and it is certain to have positive benefits for the island’s burgeoning entrepreneurial and private sector.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) , one of the leading cosponsors, added, “A bipartisan majority of the Senate agrees that the federal government should not be telling Americans where they can or cannot travel, especially to a tiny country just 90 miles from Florida.  The restrictions in law that our bill would strike down are a failed vestige of the Cold War.  The travel ban is neither justified nor in our national security or economic interests.  If we don’t engage, China and Russia will – in fact they already are.  While this bill doesn’t lift the embargo, it at least would restore to Americans the freedom to travel they are entitled to.”

The increased U.S. travel to Cuba over the last two years has contributed to economic growth and job creation in the U.S. travel and tourism sectors and provided significant economic support to Cuban entrepreneurs and small business owners. Removing all restrictions on traveling to Cuba would further strengthen Cuba’s growing private sector.

Expanded travel to Cuba is supported by 81% of the American public, including 71% of Republicans plus U.S. travel groups, over 100 U.S. agriculture groups, the National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. national security experts and almost 100% of the Cuban people.

Ending the U.S. Embargo[2]

On May 25 A bill to lift the trade embargo on Cuba (S. 1286) was introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) with 13 cosponsors (9 Democrats, 3 Republicans and 1 Independent). It would pave the way for new economic opportunities for American businesses and farmers by boosting U.S. exports and allow Cubans greater access to American goods. The legislation repeals key provisions of previous laws that block Americans from doing business in Cuba, but does not repeal portions of law that address human rights or property claims against the Cuban government.

“For far too long, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined by the conflicts of the past instead of the realities of today and the possibilities for the future,” Senator Klobuchar said. “More than 50 years of isolating an island just 90 miles from our border has not secured our interests and has disadvantaged American business owners and farmers. This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people of both our countries by boosting American exports and creating opportunity for the Cuban people. We need to turn the page on the failed policy of isolation and build on the progress we have made to open up engagement with Cuba by ending the embargo once and for all.”

Senator Michael Enzi (Rep., WY), one of the cosponsors, said, “Over the last 50 years, our strategy of isolating Cuba hasn’t been very successful. This bipartisan legislation would lift the travel restriction to Cuba, providing new opportunities for American businesses, farmers and ranchers. But trade is very powerful. It can be more than just the flow of goods, but also the flow of ideas – ideas of freedom and democracy are the keys to positive change in any nation. It is time we moved on from the failed ideas of the past and tried a new approach to Cuba.”

Another cosponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy, added, “Decades after the end of the Cold War we continue to impose punitive sanctions against Cuba, a tiny island neighbor that poses no threat to us. After more than half a century, the embargo has achieved none of its objectives.  President Obama took a courageous and pragmatic step in opening diplomatic relations with Cuba.  It is now up to Congress to end the embargo, which is used by the Cuban government to justify its repressive policies, and by foreign companies to avoid competing with U.S. businesses that are shut out of the market.  Lifting the embargo will put more food on the plates of the Cuban people, allow them to access quality U.S. products, and spur reforms in Cuba’s economy, all while benefiting American companies.  I commend Senator Klobuchar for her steadfast leadership on this issue.”

Cuba relies on agriculture imports to feed the 11 million people who live on Cuba and the 3.5 million tourists who visit each year. This represents a $2 billion opportunity for American farmers annually. This bill would repeal the current legal restrictions against doing business with Cuba, including the original 1961 authorization for establishing the trade embargo; subsequent laws that required enforcement of the embargo; and other restrictive statutes that prohibit transactions between U.S.-owned or controlled firms and Cuba, and limitations on direct shipping between U.S. and Cuban ports.

Conclusion

Now is the time for all U.S. supporters of normalization to engage in public advocacy of these policies and to urge their U.S. Senators and Representatives to oppose any rollback of normalization.

We also need to express our support of those who have introduced bills in this Session of Congress to end the embargo and to expand Americans’ freedom to travel to Cuba. In addition to the two previously mentioned bills, the following bills also deserve support:

  • Senator Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2017 (S.275);
  • Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), Cuba Trade Act of 2017 (S.472)(end the embargo);
  • Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., SC), Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 (H.R.351);
  • Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), Cuba Trade Act of 2017 (H.R.442)(end the embargo);[3]
  • Representative Kevin Cramer (Rep., ND), Cuba DATA Act (H.R.498);
  • Representative Rick Crawford (Rep., AR), Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (H.R.525); and
  • Representative Jose Serrano, (Dem., NY), Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act of 2017 (H.R.572), Baseball Diplomacy Act (H.R.573), Cuba Reconciliation Act (H.R.574).

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[1] S.1287: A bill to allow United States citizens and legal residents to travel between the United States and Cuba; Flake, Leahy Reintroduce Bill Restoring Freedom to Travel to Cuba (May 25, 2017); Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy on The Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 (May 25, 2017); 55 U.S. Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Life the Travel Ban on Cuba, Engage Cuba (May 25, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers Reintroduce Bill to End Restrictions on Cuba Travel, N.Y. Times (May 25, 2017); Torres, More than 50 senators support eliminating restrictions on travel to Cuba, Miami Herald (May 26, 2017).

[2] S. 1286: A bill to lift the trade embargo on Cuba (May 25, 2017); Klobuchar, Enzi, Leahy Flake Lead Bipartisan Coalition to Introduce Major Legislation to lift Cuba Trade Embargo (May 25, 2017); Sens. Introduce Second Cuba Bill, Sending Clear Message to Trump, Engage Cuba (May 26, 2017).

[3] Representatives Emmer and Castor Introduce Bill To End Embargo of Cuba, dwkcommentariese.com (Jan. 12, 2017).

Rumors of Upcoming Trump Administration Rollback of U.S. Normalization of Relations with Cuba

As reported in prior posts, the Trump Administration presumably has been conducting an overall review of U.S. policies regarding Cuba.[1] Although the completion of that review has not been publicly announced, there are rumors that in mid-June the Administration will be announcing a rollback of at least some of the various normalization measures announced by the Obama Administration starting on December 17, 2014.

Rumored Reversals

Even though U.S.’ Cuba policies have not had much public attention in these days of focus on revelations of Trump campaign connections with Russia, the pro-U.S.-embargo lobby apparently has used support for the Administration’s non-Cuba legislation (e.g., health care) to extract promises from Trump on rolling back the present policies. High on the list of rumored roll backs are limiting people-to-people U.S. travel to technical categories and stopping any U.S. trade or licenses that would be associated with “military” entities of the Cuban government.

This rumored reversal is happening even though all federal administration agencies support further negotiations with Cuba for better relations, especially in the areas of illegal immigration, national security, human trafficking, environment, trade, commerce, healthcare. These agencies influence have been hampered because there is no one in charge of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department.

These unfortunate changes were hinted in President Trump’s statement on the May 20th so-called Cuban Independence Day when he said:[2]

  • “Americans and Cubans share allegiance to the principles of self-governance, dignity, and freedom. Today, we remember patriots like José Martí, who devoted himself to making Cuba an economically competitive and politically autonomous nation. He reminds us that cruel despotism cannot extinguish the flame of freedom in the hearts of Cubans, and that unjust persecution cannot tamper Cubans’ dreams for their children to live free from oppression. The Cuban people deserve a government that peacefully upholds democratic values, economic liberties, religious freedoms, and human rights, and my Administration is committed to achieving that vision.” (Emphasis added.)

Trump’s statement, not unexpectedly, was not well received in Cuba. Later the same day an “Official Note” was read on Cuban state television describing Trump’s message as “controversial” and “ridiculous,” especially on May 20, which Cuba sees as the date in 1902 when Cuba became a “Yankee neo-colony” or de facto U.S. protectorate after its status as a Spanish colony ended. More specifically May 20, 1902, was the date the Platt Amendment was added to the Cuban Constitution and 11 days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris by the U.S. and Spain ending the so-called Spanish-American War.[3] Cuba’s true Independence Day is January 1, 1959, the date the Cuban Revolution took over the government of the island.[4]

Resistance to Reversals

There, however, is resistance to any such rumored reversals.

First, the Trump Administration itself recently submitted its proposed Fiscal 2018 budget for the State Department that does not include any funds for the so-called Cuba “democracy promotion” programs by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).[5] In a letter accompanying this budget request, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the request “acknowledges that U.S. diplomacy engagement and aid programs must be more efficient and more effective, and that advancing our national security, our economic interests, and our values will remain our primary mission.” These undercover or covert USAID programs, in this blogger’s opinion, are unjustified and counterproductive and should have been cancelled a long time ago.[6]

Second, another voice for resistance within the Trump Administration is U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who is a Trump appointee. On May 17 he appeared before the House Agriculture Committee. In response to a question by Representative Rick Crawford (Rep., AR) about his bill, Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (H.R.525), that would eliminate the U.S. requirement for Cuban cash payments upfront to purchase U.S. agricultural exports, Perdue said, “I think that’s something I would be supportive of if folks around the world need private credit to buy our products, and I’m all for that. [7]

Third, a May 24 letter to President Trump advocated the maintenance of the current U.S. policies regarding U.S. travel to Cuba. It came from a group of over 40 U.S. travel service providers that offer legal, authorized travel to Cuba. It asserted that the recent increase of such travel “has had a significant impact on our businesses by increasing our revenue and allowing us to hire more American employees. Additionally, it has helped the Cuban private sector, and fostered strong relationships between Americans and Cuban religious organizations and humanitarian programs.” The impact on Cuba’s private sector was emphasized: “Many U.S. travelers visiting Cuba stay in privately run B&Bs, dine at private restaurants, hire independent taxis and purchase goods and services from entrepreneurs. They are greatly supporting the growth of the Cuban private sector.”[8]

Fourth, another force for resistance to any such roll back is Cuban Ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, who along with other Cuban diplomats has been traveling to many parts of the U.S. and conveying Cuba’s best wishes for better relations with the U.S. and how such relations will benefit many Americans. I well remember the visit he and his wife made to Minneapolis in 2014 before he had the title of Ambassador and his low-key, pleasant and intelligent discussion of the many issues facing our two countries.  More recently he has been to Harvard University and Montana State University and visiting mayors, governors, legislators and ordinary Americans in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Montana, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Louisiana, the Washington suburbs and Florida. At the University of Louisville, the Ambassador said, “We are ready and open to work with the Trump administration, and we believe that we can build a future of cooperation with the United States in many subjects, although we recognize that there are many areas in which we will not agree.”[9]

Conclusion

Now is the time for all U.S. supporters of normalization to engage in public advocacy of these policies and to urge their U.S. Senators and Representatives to oppose any rollback of normalization.

We also need to express our support of those who have introduced bills in this Session of Congress to end the embargo and to expand Americans’ freedom to travel to Cuba:

  • Senator Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2017 (S.275);
  • Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), Cuba Trade Act of 2017 (S.472)(end the embargo);
  • Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., SC), Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 (H.R.351);
  • Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), Cuba Trade Act of 2017 (H.R.442)(end the embargo);[10]
  • Representative Kevin Cramer (Rep., ND), Cuba DATA Act (H.R.498);
  • Representative Rick Crawford (Rep., AR), Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (H.R.525); and
  • Representative Jose Serrano, (Dem., NY), Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act of 2017 (H.R.572), Baseball Diplomacy Act (H.R.573), Cuba Reconciliation Act (H.R.574).

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[1] The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under the Trump Administration, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 22, 2016); More Reasons To Believe There Is a Dim Future for U.S.-Cuba Normalization, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 2, 2017); Three Experts Anticipate Little Change in U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 10, 2017); Washington Post Endorses Continued Normalization with Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 11, 2017); Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson Addresses U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 12, 2017); Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, Provides Written Responses Regarding Cuba to Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan 23, 2017); Lobbying the Incoming Trump Administration To Continue Normalization with Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 18, 2017); Cuban Entrepreneurs Express Frustration and Confidence, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 28, 2017); Uncertainty Over Future Cuba Policies of Trump Administration, dwkcommentaries.com   (Apr. 5, 2017).

[2] White House, Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Cuban Independence Day (May 20, 2017).

[3] The U.S. 1898 entry into Cuba’s Second War of Independence and establishment of the de facto protectorate lasting until 1934 was reviewed in a prior post.

[4] Torres, Havana lashes out against Trump’s Mary 20 message to the Cuban people, Miami Herald (May 22, 2017); Sánchez, There is no future without the past, Granma (May 23, 2017).

[5] Whitefield, No USAID funds for Cuba in Trump budget proposal, Miami Herald (May 24, 2017); Schwartz, Trump Administration Proposes 32% Cut to State Department Budget, W.S.J. (May 23, 2017); Secretary Tillerson, Letter Regarding State Department’s Budget Request (Fiscal 2018) (May 23, 2017).

[6] See posts listed in “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[7] USDA Secretary Perdue Supports Bill to Expand Ag Exports to Cuba, Engage Cuba (May 18, 2017);

[8] Over 40 Leading U.S. Travel Companies and Associations Urge President Trump Not to Roll Back U.S. Travel to Cuba, Engage Cuba (May 24, 2017).

[9] Whitefield, Cubans become the road warriors of D.C. diplomatic corps, Miami Herald (May 22, 2017).

[10] Representatives Emmer and Castor Introduce Bill To End Embargo of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 12, 2017).