On June 25 three U.S. Senators arrived in Cuba: Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), who have been there before, and Senator Dean Heller (Rep., NV). There has been no recent development that seems to have prompted this trip, which prompts the question: why this trip at this time?
The U.S. Interests Section in Havana said they were there to focus “on continued progress towards normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.”
Upon arrival in Havana, Senator Leahy said, “I’m glad to see things are changing between our countries, and the more they change, the faster they change, the better for both countries.”
They met with (i) Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President and heir-apparent to Raul Castro, (ii) Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Director General of the U.S. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and (iii) other Foreign Ministry officials. They discussed relations between Cuba and the United States and the debate currently taking place in the U.S. Congress on the elimination of restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba and the lifting of the U.S. embargo (blockade).They also met with religious leaders, ambassadors and others in Havana and the eastern city of Santiago.
At a press conference in Havana on June 27, Senator Leahy asserted, “The embargo has been an error of American policy.” He also said, “I’ve been here three times since the announcements of December 17, and “I see a new, very positive change in Cuba.”
Leahy added, “Obviously we still have differences, but I look forward to the United States being able to have a real embassy here. We hope that [the opening of embassies] can be very soon. Some in Congress oppose the opening, but I like to think that they are minority. We must open a full embassy. We have a magnificent ambassador here and the staff and appropriate facilities. I like to think that the U.S. is a great country, and our embassies should reflect that.”
Senator Cardin said the delegation made clear to Cuban officials that the path to normalization must include dealing with thorny issues where the U.S. and Cuba have serious disagreements, such as human rights. “For normal relations to move down a productive path, it’s critically important for Cuba to recognize that it is out of step today with international human rights issues.”
The only Republican in the group, Senator Heller on his first visit to Cuba, said, “When the president is right, I support Obama, and he is right in the case of Cuba. Heller acknowledged that there is still much resistance to change in Congress. One way to overcome this resistance, he said, was for Americans to travel to Cuba to talk to people and see the reality with their own eyes. “That will change minds and hearts as has happened to me.” Heller, by the way, is a member of the Senate Committee on Finance; its Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee; its Committee on Veterans’ Affairs; its Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee; and the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
A number of Cuba initiatives are pending in the Senate, including a bill to remove the travel ban on Americans and a more ambitions bill to rescind the decades-old U.S. economic embargo, but these proposals are opposed by the Republican leadership in control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The three senators in Havana thought there were better prospects for progress on Cuba legislation in their chamber. Senator Heller observed, “I think the Senate can move the House, but the Senate’s going to have to act first.”
The reasons for this Republican resistance to reconciliation were captured by Héctor E. Schamis, Adjunct Associate Professor at Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University, who said:
- The Republican Party, “the former pragmatic party of big business, is increasingly a party of ideology and short-term electioneering.Their incentives are to protect their districts–socially homogeneous, culturally and ideologically dogmatic and uniform– attributes that rise to the surface in such varied topics as immigration, gay marriage … or the Cuban transition. Its social base is the pure and simple anti-communism, which is also old. It is a reading of the world backward, not forward. Ignore the demographic change in the Cuban-American community, where the younger they are, the more they support the strategy of Obama. The Republican Party does not know that for these young people, Castro and Napoleon belong to the same place: the history books.”
At the start of this post, I said there has been no recent development that seems to have prompted this trip. That is true and reveals, in my opinion, the reason for this trip at this time. By now many in the U.S. at least were expecting that the two countries would have announced that they were re-establishing diplomatic relations and thus converting their interests sections into embassies. Keys for that anticipated announcement in June were the May 29, 2015, U.S. rescission of its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism;” the Cuban Interests Section establishing a banking relationship with a bank in Florida; and a reported agreement regarding conditions for U.S. diplomats’ travel in Cuba.
Thus, in my opinion, the reason for this trip at this time was for Senator Leahy to attempt to determine whether there was some unknown reason from the Cubans for the lack of such an announcement and to press them to conclude the agreement for re-establishing diplomatic relations. Leahy also in the private discussions with the Cuban Foreign Ministry officials may have talked about political reasons from the U.S. perspective to have an announced re-establishment of diplomatic relations as soon as possible. After all, in his public comments in Havana, Leahy stressed the desire for a prompt opening of embassies and the need for the U.S. to open a full embassy.
Let us hope that in the next few days or weeks there will be an announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations.
 This post is based upon the following: Assoc. Press, Leahy Heads US Senate Delegation to Cuba Ahead of Embassies, N.Y. Times (June 26, 2015); Diaz-Canel received US Senators, Granma (June 26, 2015); Miguel Diaz-Canel meets with US Senator Patrick Leahy, Marti (June 26, 2015); Senator Leahy in Havana: The blockade has been an error of US policy, CubaDebate (June 27, 2015); Gomez, Normalization is the right way, say US senators in Havana, Granma (June 27, 2015); Assoc. Press, US Sen. Leahy Sees ‘Positive Change,’ Work to Do in Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 27, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Senators Visit Cuba, Hope Congress Will Ease Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 27, 2015); Schamis, Obama’s Cuba and its discontents, El Pais (June 28, 2015).