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).

Launching the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba 

On January 8th the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, whose purpose is “to re-establish Cuba as a market for U.S. food and agriculture exports,” was publicly launched at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The Agricultural Coalition’s Basics

usacc

To achieve this purpose, the Coalition’s mission is “to strive to turn Cuba from an enemy to an ally . . . by building trade relations with an honest appraisal of the past and a fresh look to the future.” This mission is based upon the beliefs that “the improvement of agricultural trade between the U.S. and Cuba is the foundation for building successful and enduring relations between the two countries” and that “an increased exchange of ideas, knowledge, capital and credit will benefit both countries.”

In implementing its mission, the Coalition will be “advancing a constructive dialogue in the [U.S.] on U.S.-Cuba relations . . . to end the long-standing embargo, . . . to build momentum that drives historical change . . . [and] to explain [to the public] the moral imperative of liberalizing trade between the two countries.”

Its website lists the following benefits for the U.S. of ending the U.S. embargo: enhancement of regional security and the global economy; improvement of U.S. travel, research and cultural and business relations; helping Cubans gain rights; assisting both countries in natural disaster preparedness, crop disease management and food security; improving both countries’ economies; and contributing to U.S. strength and Cuban sovereignty. There also is a similar list of benefits for Cuban citizens for ending the U.S. embargo. In addition, the website has comments about post-embargo and food security issues.

The 30-member Coalition is lead by Cargill Incorporated, a Minnesota company responsible for 25% of all U.S. grain exports, along with representatives of rice, wheat, barley, soybean, corn, oilseed, dry beans and canola growers and producers of dairy, beef, pork and poultry products; and other agricultural groups. (The complete list of the members is on the Coalition’s website.)

Devry Boughner Vorwerk, the Chair of the Coalition and Cargill’s Vice President of Corporate Affairs, said, “We will work with key stakeholders to build momentum that drives historical change.” The Vice Chair of the Coalition, Paul Johnson, is the Executive Director of the Illinois Cuba Working Group, which was created by a unanimous resolution of the state legislature, and an owner of a company that exports food products to the island; he also lived in Havana while working on a thesis on Cuba’s economic development.

The National Press Club Event

The launch of the Coalition featured remarks by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; Democratic Missouri Governor Jay Nixon; U.S. Representatives Sam Farr (Dem., CA), Kevin Cramer (Rep., ND), and Rodney Davis (Rep., IL); and U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (Rep., KS) and Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN). (A video of the launch program along with text of the remarks is available on C-Span-3.)

Vilsack

Secretary Vilsack noted that American agriculture had a good year in 2014, but that an opening with Cuba would allow the sector to do even better. He said the embargo “isolated us from the rest of the hemisphere, and isolated ordinary Cubans from the outside world.” The new presidential opening to Cuba “will make our products much more price competitive and they’ll expand choices for Cubans shopping in Cuban grocery stores. Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food, which means that there is significant economic potential for our producers. It’s a 1.7 billion dollar market.” Secretary Vilsack also pointed out that the “president had done what he can, but we still have legislative hurdles to cross. Congress has to act to remove all the U.S. trade barriers that make it hard for [U.S. agriculture] . . . to sell in Cuba.”[1]

Governor Jay Nixon
Governor Jay Nixon

Governor Nixon called the opening up of Cuba “a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our farms and our economy. The more Missouri goods we sell overseas, the more good jobs we create back at home—it’s really pretty simple. But right now, when it comes to Cuba, we are not on a level playing field, because of the sanctions.” He, therefore, called on members of Congress “to support our farmers, support the free market, and support this outstanding opportunity to strengthen our economy . . . . Now is the time for Congress to follow through and remove these financial restrictions. Lift the embargo and do away with the self-imposed barriers that are holding us back. In a competitive world we cannot ignore 11-million customers 90 miles from our country.”[2]

Representative Sam Farr
Representative            Sam Farr

Representative Farr said the President’s opening to Cuba “will be one of the great modern events of America. We will have torn down our iron wall.” But “it’s going to be very difficult” politically to do this in the U.S. Nor will it be easy politically for Cuba. But “Cuba is a well-educated country. Its people have a can-do attitude. They really like Americans.” Representative Farr also noted, “Every other country in this hemisphere has diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba.” They have chastised the U.S. for having this “archaic policy.” When President Obama goes to the Summit of the Americas in Panama this April “he’s going to be welcomed as a hero. Now we will be able to unify the hemisphere.”

On the other hand, Farr said, “The battle will be in Congress because of a really small minority of Cuban-Americans.” Therefore, congressional supporters of the Cuban opening are “going to start a new Cuba Working Group.” The American people and agricultural and business people need to “use their political voices to show” Congress that we need to go forward with Cuba trade and relations.

Representative Kevin Cramer
Representative Kevin Cramer

Representative Cramer remarked that the U.S. has “the opportunity to spread liberty, to spread democracy and to sell products. We can test it incrementally. We can open up little by little and provide assurance to those colleagues of ours in the House and Senate that might not be inclined to go all in. I have learned in my time in Congress that persuasion does not happen quickly. Almost nothing happens quickly.”

Representative Rodney Davis
Representative Rodney Davis

 

 

Representative Davis said he wants “to see communism lifted in Cuba so that the Cuban people can experience the same freedoms we experience here in the [U.S.].” Indeed, “increasing the trade we already have with the Cuban nation is going to allow America to invest in a Cuban economy that‘s going to free the Cuban citizens from the conditions that they live under now.” He also noted that for a long time he has supported “more normalized trade relations with the Cuban people.”

Senator Jerry Moran
Senator             Jerry Moran

Senator Moran stated that the U.S. is a “natural supplier to Cuba. The cost of transportation from Europe to Cuba is about $25 a ton” while the “cost from the [U.S.] is $6 or $7. We have to take advantage of that.” More importantly, “it’s something more noble than the trading relationship or the selling opportunity. It’s about changing the opportunity that Cubans have in relationship with the government. A growing economy and standard of living creates the opportunities for the Cuban people to make demands [on their government]. There is a noble calling of trying to make the world a better place for all citizens of the world. Common sense says we ought to do this and morality says we ought to. Let’s make the difference and the change. This is a Congress that has the ability to do that.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator                   Amy Klobuchar

Senator Klobuchar said America has “a historic opportunity right now to modernize our country’s relationship with Cuba – and it’s a moment we must seize. By increasing travel and commerce between our two countries, we can boost American exports to Cuba and create American jobs to produce the goods for 11 million new customers, while also helping to improve the quality of life for Cubans. I’m looking forward to working with our agriculture community and members of both parties to help build a practical and positive relationship between the people of Cuba and the United States.” She “hopes we can have a robust and substantive debate. Congress must avoid obstructive actions like blocking the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba or the funding of activities regarding Cuba.”

Conclusion

As a supporter of the reconciliation of our two countries, I rejoice in the launching of this new coalition to end the embargo and to add their support for this reconciliation.

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[1] On the day of President Obama’s announcement of the breakthrough with Cuba (December 17th), Secretary Vilsack issued this statement: “Throughout history, agriculture has served as a bridge to foster cooperation, understanding and the exchange of ideas among people. I have no doubt that agriculture will continue to play that powerful role as we expand our relationship with the Cuban people in the coming years” He added, “Today’s announcement expands opportunity for U.S. farmers and ranchers to do business in Cuba. It removes technical barriers between U.S. and Cuban companies and creates a more efficient, less burdensome opportunity for Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products. It also makes those products far more price competitive, which will expand choices for Cuban shoppers at the grocery store and create a new customer base for America’s farmers and ranchers.”

[2] Missouri’s Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill, on the same day as the Press Club event, announced that she will be going to Cuba at the end of February to assess whether Cuba would be a suitable market for Missouri agriculture. Another Senator, John Boozman (Rep., AR), announced his support of the Coalition and expanding trade with Cuba.