More U.S. Senators Visit Cuba

Over the U.S. Presidents’ Day holiday (February 14-17), Democratic U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN), Claire McCaskill (MO) and Mark Warner (VA) visited Cuba. They met with government and religious leaders and people on the street. [1]

Bruno Rodriíguez Parrilla
Bruno Rodriíguez Parrilla
Josefina Vidal
Josefina Vidal

Cuba’s only newspaper, Granma, in its English-language edition, had a prominent article about the senators’ meeting with Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, [2] and Josefina Vidal, General Director of Cuba’s U.S. Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the official in charge of Cuba’s current negotiations with the U.S. Granma stated that the meeting “addressed relevant topics, such as the process of reestablishing diplomatic relations between both nations and the lifting of the economic blockade [embargo].”  Cuba’s official statement about the meeting emphasized that Senator Klobuchar had “presented a legislative bill to Congress which aims to eliminate blockade restrictions.”

Senators McCaskill, Klobuchar and Warner (Granma photo)
Senators McCaskill, Klobuchar and Warner (Granma photo)

The English-language edition of Granma had a longer article featuring this color photograph of the three senators at their concluding press conference in Havana and a video of the conference. It reported that the senators had “expressed optimism in regards to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and progress toward normalization.” One of the Cuban journalists asked if the senators thought they had visited a terrorist state, and the answer was “no.”

After identifying Senator Klobuchar as the author of a bill to end the embargo, the Cuban newspaper reported the she expressed “confidence that the visit would help to broaden the prevailing view of Cuba in Washington, which should strengthen the bipartisan effort to eliminate blockade restrictions on trade and maritime transport, among others.” She also noted “that changes will not be immediate, but emphasized the need to hold a discussion involving both major U.S. parties.”

According to Granma, Senator McCaskill said there are “no problems which could not be addressed, and expressed optimism in regards to the [current U.S.-Cuba] talks.” She also reported that “the delegation had visited the Port of Mariel and the adjacent Special Development Zone, emphasizing the possibilities opening up for U.S. imports to Cuba.” (A prior post discussed this deep-sea port development to accommodate larger container ships going through an enlarged Panama Cana while a 11/07/14 comment to that post mentioned difficulties Cuba was experiencing in attracting foreign investment in the project.)

Senator Warner, according to Granma, mentioned the need to eliminate U.S. restrictions that made it more difficult for Cubans to buy goods under exemptions from the embargo.

As the three senators prepared to leave Cuba, they learned that the second round of talks for the two countries would take place in Washington, D.C. on February 27th., and according to U.S. press coverage of the press conference, they so announced to the journalists. Senator Warner said, “We look with hope and expectations to the meetings next week in Washington between the Cuban government and the American State Department to make progress.” [3]

McCaskill added, according to the U.S. journalists, “Frankly I’m optimistic because the negotiators are two women and we know how to get things done.” Perhaps more importantly, she said, largely Republican agricultural interests in the Midwest supported lifting the embargo as “they really want to sell rice [and other agricultural products] down here. So it is the business community and agricultural community who I think might have the most influence on helping us make this effort more bipartisan.”

McCaskill said right-wing opposition to other bills has been overcome when House Speaker John Boehner had allowed the entire House to vote on them, contrary to the so called Hastert Rule or Practice that would not allow a bill to come to floor of the House for a vote unless it had the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. McCaskill hoped, “This could be one of those times, especially if the Chamber of Commerce and the commodities groups and the Farm Bureaus of the world really start putting political pressure on their own party.”

Afterwards Klobuchar told a Minnesota journalist that the Cuban people often mention the date “December 17th,” the day Presidents Obama and Castro announced their countries’ agreement to pursue reconciliation, and she saw people selling artwork using the newspaper’s front page of Obama’s decree. “We met with every-day people who had started businesses who are excited. There is a real interest in buying American products.” Indeed, with U.S. trade restrictions removed, she said, Minnesota could be selling more pork, poultry, corn and soybeans, farm machinery and perhaps renewable energy technology to Cuba that could easily double its current $20 million in annual agricultural exports to the island.

These conversations led Senator Klobuchar to conclude that Cubans have a couple of top priorities: normalizing currency and getting better access to high-speed Internet and cell phones. “Once they get Internet and once they get communications,” she asserted, “ I believe there will be improvements to everything else.”

News of Senator Klobuchar’s bill to end the embargo with her photograph had appeared on the front page of Granma, causing many Cuban people to recognize her as she walked down the street. She felt like a celebrity.

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[1] This post is based upon Press Release, Klobuchar in Cuba to Discuss Economic Opportunities for Minnesota (Feb. 17, 2015); Sherry, Sen. Klobuchar spends weekend in Cuba hearing out locals, StarTribune (Feb. 17, 2015);  Assoc. Press, Amy Klobuchar, in Cuba, sees opportunity for Minnesota, Pion. Press (Feb. 18, 2015); Ikowitz, Why Sen. Klobuchar felt like a celebrity on Cuba trip, Wash. Post (Feb. 17, 2015); Assoc. Press, Senator: Next round of US-Cuba Talks Next Week, N.Y. Times (Feb. 17, 2015);  Reuters, U.S., Cuba to Meet February 27; Senators See Path for End of Embargo, N.Y. Times (Feb. 17, 2015); Cuban minister receives U.S. senators, Granma (Feb. 17, 2015); Gomez, US senators expect better relations with Cuba, Granma (Feb. 17, 2015).

[2] Last October Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla presented Cuba’s resolution condemning the U.S. embargo to the U.N. General Assembly, which approved it 188 to 2.  

[3] In a separate, very short article, Granma’s Spanish-language original reported the second round of talks would take place in Washington on February 27th. (Second round of cuba-US talks, Granma (Feb. 17, 2015)(English by Google Translate).) 

Congress Passes Violence Against Women Act of 2013

U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. House of Representatives

On February 28th the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The vote was 286 to 138. The majority was comprised of 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans. All of the 138 negative votes were Republicans while 7 other Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, did not vote.

This House action came immediately after the House had rejected a weaker version offered by Minority Leader Eric Cantor, 166-257. The prevailing negative votes came from 197 Democrats and 60 Republicans.

This action is significant in several respects.

First, the Act includes for the first time protection of gay, bisexual or transgender female victims of domestic abuse and of Native American women who are victims of certain kinds of violence by non-Indian men.

As discussed in a prior post, I have been most concerned about the jurisdictional “black hole” that has prevented investigation and prosecution of abuse of Native women by non-Indian men, and the bill now passed by Congress remedies that defect.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

Novelist and Native-American Louise Erdrich highlighted this jurisdictional problem in her novel The Round House, and she recently penned an op-ed article in the New York Times that countered criticisms of the tribal courts jurisdictional provision in this bill.

Erdrich said the “Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped over her lifetime, while other sources report that many Native women are too demoralized to report rape.  Perhaps this is because federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. [In addition’] . . . a Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.”

Moreover, according to Erdrich, the “Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center says this gap in the law has attracted non-Indian habitual sexual predators to tribal areas . . . [and another source] has found that rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season.”

Erdrich also defends the abilities and fairness of tribal courts against the charge that they would be unfair to non-Indian defendants. She says,“Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.” In addition, “[t]ribal judges know they must make impeccable decisions . . . that they are being watched closely and must defend their hard-won jurisdiction. Our courts and lawyers cherish every tool given by Congress. Nobody wants to blow it by convicting a non-Indian without overwhelming, unshakable evidence.”

Erdrich’s comments are echoed in a New York Times editorial that stated, “Violence and crime rage unchecked in Indian country, yet the federal government, the primary law enforcer on reservations, is investigating and prosecuting fewer violent felonies, and reducing financing for tribal courts and public-safety programs. That is a scandal . . . . [and]  a moral atrocity.”

Second, the House Republican leadership permitted the Senate version to come to the floor even though it did not have the support of a majority of the Republican members. This was a “violation” of the so-called unofficial Hastert Rule established by a previous Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, whereby the Republican majority would only bring to the floor for a vote measures that were supported by a “majority of the majority.” Moreover, this was the third time this year that the Hastert Rule has not been followed. The other occasions were a bill to avert automatic tax increases and a bill providing relief for states hit by Hurricane Sandy.

John Boehner
John Boehner

Although this three-time refusal to follow the Hastert Rule upsets at least some of the more conservative Republican Representatives, I applaud Speaker Boehner’s acting as a Speaker of the entire House of Representatives, not just the Republican caucus. I hope that he continues to do so or that a truly bipartisan Speaker replaces him.

It must also be noted that allowing the VAWA bill to come to the floor for a vote and to be passed is a reversal of  longstanding House Republican opposition to the bill. This change is seen as a recognition by at least some of the House GOP leadership that the party needed to try to repair its standing among women, who gave the Democrats a substantial margin of victory in the 2012 election. Apparently 13 Republican Representatives who are announced or likely candidates for the Senate in 2014 disagree with this political judgment as they voted against VAWA on Thursday.

President Obama
President Obama

Immediately after the House action President Obama expressed his approval of the House action:“Today’s vote will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and members of the LGBT community.  I want to thank leaders from both parties . . . for everything they’ve done to make this happen.  Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk.”

Joseph Biden
Joseph Biden

 

Vice President Biden also applauded the House and thanked “the leaders from both parties . . . and the bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate” for passage of the bill.