Enactment of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) Over the Presidential Veto

As a previous post reported, from September 16, 2015, through September 9, 2016, the current Session of Congress considered and overwhelmingly adopted the Justice Against Terrorism Act (JASTA). Although neither chamber of Congress held hearings on JASTA this Session and voiced little opposition to the bill, objections to the bill were raised outside Congress, and on September 23, 2016, President Obama vetoed the bill, as was mentioned in a prior post. Thereafter Congress overrode the veto and JASTA became law, whose details were discussed in another previous post.

Now we will retreat in time and examine the president’s veto message and the congressional overriding of the veto. Another post will look at subsequent efforts to amend JASTA.

President Obama’s Veto Message

 On September 23, President Obama vetoed JASTA and returned the bill to Congress with a message stating the following reasons for the veto:[1]

  • “Enacting JASTA into law . . . would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks. As drafted, JASTA would allow private litigation against foreign governments in U.S. courts based on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad made them responsible for terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil. This legislation would permit litigation against countries that have neither been designated by the executive branch as state sponsors of terrorism nor taken direct actions in the United States to carry out an attack here. The JASTA would be detrimental to U.S. national interests more broadly, which is why I am returning it without my approval.”
  • “First, JASTA threatens to reduce the effectiveness of our response to indications that a foreign government has taken steps outside our borders to provide support for terrorism, by taking such matters out of the hands of national security and foreign policy professionals and placing them in the hands of private litigants and courts.”
  • “Any indication that a foreign government played a role in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is a matter of deep concern and merits a forceful, unified Federal Government response that considers the wide range of important and effective tools available. One of these tools is designating the foreign government in question as a state sponsor of terrorism, which carries with it a litany of repercussions, including the foreign government being stripped of its sovereign immunity before U.S. courts in certain terrorism-related cases and subjected to a range of sanctions. Given these serious consequences, state sponsor of terrorism designations are made only after national security, foreign policy, and intelligence professionals carefully review all available information to determine whether a country meets the criteria that the Congress established.”
  • “In contrast, JASTA departs from longstanding standards and practice under our Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and threatens to strip all foreign governments of immunity from judicial process in the United States based solely upon allegations by private litigants that a foreign government’s overseas conduct had some role or connection to a group or person that carried out a terrorist attack inside the United States. This would invite consequential decisions to be made based upon incomplete information and risk having different courts reaching different conclusions about the culpability of individual foreign governments and their role in terrorist activities directed against the United States — which is neither an effective nor a coordinated way for us to respond to indications that a foreign government might have been behind a terrorist attack.”
  • “Second, JASTA would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests. The United States has a larger international presence, by far, than any other country, and sovereign immunity principles protect our Nation and its Armed Forces, officials, and assistance professionals, from foreign court proceedings. These principles also protect U.S. Government assets from attempted seizure by private litigants abroad. Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad had a connection to terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.”
  • “Indeed, reciprocity plays a substantial role in foreign relations, and numerous other countries already have laws that allow for the adjustment of a foreign state’s immunities based on the treatment their governments receive in the courts of the other state. Enactment of JASTA could encourage foreign governments to act reciprocally and allow their domestic courts to exercise jurisdiction over the United States or U.S. officials — including our men and women in uniform — for allegedly causing injuries overseas via U.S. support to third parties. This could lead to suits against the United States or U.S. officials for actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training, even if the allegations at issue ultimately would be without merit. And if any of these litigants were to win judgments — based on foreign domestic laws as applied by foreign courts — they would begin to look to the assets of the U.S. Government held abroad to satisfy those judgments, with potentially serious financial consequences for the United States.”
  • “Third, JASTA threatens to create complications in our relationships with even our closest partners. If JASTA were enacted, courts could potentially consider even minimal allegations accusing U.S. allies or partners of complicity in a particular terrorist attack in the United States to be sufficient to open the door to litigation and wide-ranging discovery against a foreign country — for example, the country where an individual who later committed a terrorist act traveled from or became radicalized. A number of our allies and partners have already contacted us with serious concerns about the bill. By exposing these allies and partners to this sort of litigation in U.S. courts, JASTA threatens to limit their cooperation on key national security issues, including counterterrorism initiatives, at a crucial time when we are trying to build coalitions, not create divisions.”
  • “The 9/11 attacks were the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, and they were met with an unprecedented U.S. Government response. The United States has taken robust and wide-ranging actions to provide justice for the victims of the 9/11 attacks and keep Americans safe, from providing financial compensation for victims and their families to conducting worldwide counterterrorism programs to bringing criminal charges against culpable individuals. I have continued and expanded upon these efforts, both to help victims of terrorism gain justice for the loss and suffering of their loved ones and to protect the United States from future attacks. The JASTA, however, does not contribute to these goals, does not enhance the safety of Americans from terrorist attacks, and undermines core U.S. interests.”

Reactions to the Veto

Immediately after President Obama’s veto of JASTA, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress vowed to override the veto under Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution requiring a vote of at least two-thirds of each chamber of the Congress to do so. On the sidelines both major presidential candidates (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) said that they would have signed the bill if they were president.

These vows were made despite the prior day’s testimony before a Senate committee by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opposing the bill on the ground that it could be a problem for the U.S. if another country was “to behave reciprocally towards the U.S.” And the Republican Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, amplified the military’s concerns and urged Republicans to study the bill’s consequences while announcing his intent to opposes the override.[2]

Not surprisingly immediately after this veto, Senator John Cornyn stated, “It’s disappointing the President chose to veto legislation unanimously passed by Congress and overwhelmingly supported by the American people. Even more disappointing is the President’s refusal to listen to the families of the victims taken from us on September 11th, who should have the chance to hold those behind the deadliest terrorist attack in American history accountable. I look forward to the opportunity for Congress to override the President’s veto, provide these families with the chance to seek the justice they deserve, and send a clear message that we will not tolerate those who finance terrorism in the United States.”[3]

On September 27 President Obama sent a letter to Senators Mitch McConnell (Rep., TN), the Majority Leader, and Harry Reid (Dem. NV), Minority Leader. The President said he was “fully committed to assisting the families of the victims of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,″ but that the consequences of an override could be “devastating” by putting military and other U.S. officials overseas at risk. The bill’s enactment, he warned, “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.[4]

On September 28 Senators Cornyn and Shumer jointly wrote an op-ed article in USA Today urging Congress to override the veto because JASTA “would provide a legal avenue for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to seek justice in a court of law for the terrorist attacks that took the lives of their loved ones. And it would deter foreign entities from sponsoring terrorism in the future.” The article also rejected as untrue the argument by JASTA’s opponents “that the bill will subject U.S. diplomats and other government officials to a raft of potential lawsuits in foreign courts.”[5]

On the morning of September 28, the New York Times published an editorial opposing the threatened congressional override of the veto because “the bill complicates the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and could expose the American government, citizens and corporations to lawsuits abroad. Moreover, legal experts like Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law and Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School doubt that the legislation would actually achieve its goal.”[6]

Moreover, the Times editorial asserted that the “European Union has warned that if the bill becomes law, other countries could adopt similar legislation defining their own exemptions to sovereign immunity. Because no country is more engaged in the world than the United States — with military bases, drone operations, intelligence missions and training programs — the Obama administration fears that Americans could be subject to legal actions abroad.”

Nevertheless, later that same day (September 28) Congress overwhelmingly voted to override the presidential veto. The only vote against the override in the Senate was by the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Harry Reid (Dem., NV). The vote in the House was 348 to override with only 59 opposed.[7] We will now look at the debate in both chambers.

U.S. Senate’s Overriding the Veto

In the Senate debate, Senators Richard Blumenthal (Dem., CT), John Cornyn (Rep., TX), Chuck Grassley (Rep., IA) and Chuck Schumer (Dem. NY) spoke in favor of overriding the veto and passing JASTA while Senators Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Benjamin Cardin (Dem., DE), the Committee’s Ranking Member, and Diane Feinstein (Dem., CA) offered qualified endorsements of an override. [8]

Generally these Senators argued that U.S. victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism needed the opportunity to assert their damage claims in U.S. courts against such sponsors and that JASTA would deter such sponsored terrorism. Senator Cornyn added that this “legislation has been pending since 2009, and we have worked through a number of Members’ concerns . . . in order to modify the legislation and build the consensus we now have achieved. . . . That means [JASTA] has been negotiated and hammered out over a long period of time.”[9]

Cornyn then offered this argument for rejection of the presidential veto message:

  • JASTA would not “create complications” with some of our close partners. It “only targets foreign governments that sponsor terrorist attacks on American soil. . . . The financing of terrorism in the [U.S.] is not behavior we should tolerate from any nation, allies included.”
  • Possible foreign laws like JASTA “applied reciprocally will open no . . . floodgates” of lawsuits against the U.S. or military members by foreign governments in foreign courts.
  • “JASTA is not a sweeping legislative overhaul that dramatically alters international law. It is an extension of law that has been on the [U.S.] books since 1976. . . . [For] 40 years our law has been replete with immunity exceptions that apply to conduct committed abroad. This bill just adds another exception.”

Senator Grassley, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that this Committee unanimously supported overriding the veto of JASTA. He also said it was “highly unlikely” that passage of the bill would result in “the Saudis . . .pulling their money out of U.S. securities. . . . But even if they did, there would be plenty of buyers for those securities. But more importantly, . . . [such an argument would send the message;] if you want to influence U.S. legislation, make sure to buy up U.S. debt, and then threaten to sell that debt any time the U.S. Congress does something you don’t like. We absolutely cannot be intimidated or bend to that type of threat.”

Senator Corker commented that he had “tremendous concerns about the sovereign immunity procedures that could be set in place by other countries as a result of this vote” and that it could have adverse consequences for the U.S. “standing in the world.” He was troubled by “the concerns [of] . . . the head of our Joint Chiefs” and of the President. He also thought it would be better “to establish some type of tribunal, where experts could come in and really identify what actually happened on discretionary decisions that took place within the country of Saudi Arabia” with respect to the pending 9/11 claims.

As a result, Senator Corker prepared a bipartisan letter to the Senate sponsors of JASTA (Senators Cornyn and Schumer).[10] It expressed concern about “potential unintended consequences that may result from . . . [JASTA] for the national security and foreign policy of the United States. If other nations respond to this bill by weakening U.S. sovereign immunity protections, then the [U.S.] could face private lawsuits in foreign courts as a result of important military or intelligence activities. We would hope to work with you in a constructive manner to appropriately mitigate those unintended consequences.”

One of the signers of this letter and the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., DE), recognized “that there are risk factors in terms of how other countries may respond to the enactment of JASTA. [11] As a nation with hundreds of thousands of troops that serve abroad, not to mention multiple foreign bases and facilities, the United States of America is a country that benefits from sovereign immunity principles that protect our country and our country’s interests, its Armed Forces, government officials, and litigation in foreign courts. Therefore, there is a concern of unintended consequences, including irresponsible applications to U.S. international activities by other countries. While I have faith and confidence in the American legal system, the same faith does not necessarily extend to the fairness of legal systems of other countries that may claim they are taking similar actions against America when they are not. So [as the Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I will] follow closely how other countries respond and try to mitigate the risks of the [U.S.] abroad” and will “explore with my colleagues the possibility of whether we need or will need additional legislative action.”

Another signer of the letter, Senator Feinstein, expressed her “key concern relates to the exception to the immunity of foreign governments.”[12] “Proponents of this bill argue that the exception is narrow, that it applies only if a foreign nation, with ill intent, takes unlawful actions that cause an act of terrorism on our soil. But other nations that are strongly opposed to American actions abroad could respond by using the bill as an excuse to adopt laws that target our own government’s actions. A September 15 Washington Post editorial said it well: ‘It is not a far-fetched concern, given this country’s global use of intelligence agents, Special Operations forces and drones, all of which could be construed as state-sponsored `terrorism’ when convenient.’ Those of us on the Senate Intelligence Committee know that, if other countries respond to JASTA in this manner, it could jeopardize our government’s actions abroad. If that happens, it is likely that our government would be forced to defend against private lawsuits, which could pose a threat to our national security.” Therefore, she was interested in limiting JASTA to “the September 11 attacks” and to “those directly impacted by an attack–including individuals, their estates and property damage, rather than companies with only tangential connections.”

U.S. House of Representatives’ Overriding the Veto 

On the afternoon of September 28 the House voted to override the veto of JASTA by a vote of 348 (225 Republicans and 123 Democrats) to 77 (18 Republicans and 59 Democrats).[13]

The supporters of override were led by Representative Robert Goodlatte (Rep., VA), the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who asserted, “The changes JASTA makes to existing law are not dramatic, nor are they sweeping.. . .The President’s objections . . . have no basis under U.S. or international law.. . . Consistent with customary international law, JASTA, for terrorism cases, removes the current requirement that the entire tort occur within the United States and replaces it with a rule that only the physical injury or death must occur on U.S. soil.” Later in the debate he claimed (erroneously as explained in n.14) that his argument was supported by “Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Properties [which] would apply the territorial tort exception if the act or omission occurred in whole or in part in the territory of the state exercising jurisdiction.”[14]

Others who supported the override and who spoke during the debate were Representatives Peter King (Rep., NY), Sheila Jackson Lee (Dem., TX), Leonard Lance (Rep., NJ), David Donovan (Rep., NY), Carolyn Maloney (Dem., NY) and Jerrold Nadler (Dem. FL).

Leading the opposition to the override were Representative M. “Mac” Thornberry (Rep., TX), the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and Representative John Conyers (Dem., MI). Other opponents of override who spoke during the debate were Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (Dem., TX), David Jolly (Rep., FL), Betty McCollum (Dem., MN), Robert Scott (Dem., VA) and Earl Blumenauer (Dem., NY).

Thornberry expressed concern for the possible erosion of sovereign immunity, which is “one of the key protections that the military, diplomats, and intelligence community of the [U.S.] has around the world. Once that doctrine gets eroded, then there is less protection, and . . . the [U.S.], has more at stake in having our people protected than any other country because we have more people around the world than anyone else.” Thornberry also quoted from a letter to him from Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., General, U.S. Marine Corps. and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: `Any legislation that risks reciprocal treatment by foreign governments would increase the vulnerability of U.S. Service members to foreign legal action while acting in an official capacity.” This letter and a letter urging defeat of the override from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter were inserted into the House record.

Conyers supported the President’s reasons for his veto. “First, the President stated that [the bill] could undermine the effectiveness of our Nation’s national security and counterterrorism efforts. For instance, other nations may become more reluctant to share sensitive intelligence in light of the greater risk that such information may be revealed in litigation.   Moreover, the President raised the concern that this legislation would effectively allow non-expert private litigants and courts, rather than national security and foreign policy experts, to determine key foreign and national security policy questions like which states are sponsors of terrorism.   Second, the President’s assertion that enactment of[the bill]may lead to retaliation by other countries against the [U.S.] given the breadth of our interests and the expansive reach of our global activities.   So while it seems likely at this juncture that [the bill] will be enacted over the President’s veto, I remain hopeful that we can continue to work toward the enactment of subsequent legislation to address the President’s concerns.”

Conyers also cited others who called for sustaining the President’s veto: Michael Mukasey, the former Attorney General under George W. Bush; Stephen Hadley, the former National Security Adviser for that President; Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; and Thomas Pickering, the former [U.S.] Ambassador to the United Nations.

Representative Scott said, “JASTA abrogates a core principle in international law–foreign sovereign immunity. There are already several exceptions to this immunity recognized by our Nation and others, but JASTA goes much further than any present exception or recognized practice of any national law…. One fundamental indication of fairness of legislation is not how it would work to our benefit, but what we would think if it were used against us. If the [U.S.] decides to allow our citizens to haul foreign nations into American courts, what would we think of other nations enacting legislation allowing their citizens to do the same thing to us? Obviously, we would not want to put our diplomats, military, and private companies at that risk.”

Scott also pointed out that “JASTA does not make clear how the evidence would be gathered to help build a credible case against a foreign nation. Would the plaintiffs be able to subpoena foreign officials? Or would the U.S. Department of State officials have to testify? Would . . . [the U.S.] be required to expose sensitive materials in order to help American citizens prove their case? Again, how would we feel about foreign judges and juries deciding whether or not the [U.S.] sponsored terrorism? There are also questions about how the judgment under JASTA would be enforced. The legislation does not address how a court would enforce the judgment. Could foreign assets be attached? How would this process work if other countries enacted similar legislation? Would U.S. assets all over the world be subject to attachment to satisfy the foreign jury verdicts?”

Jolly emphasized that “the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA Director, and the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee [Representative Thornberry] have all issued statements against this legislation.”

White House Reaction to the Overriding of the Veto

On the same day as this Senate vote and before the House voted on the same bill later that day, White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, said, “I would venture to say that this is the single-most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983. You had at least one prominent Republican senator quoted today saying that . . . the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were not quite sure what the bill actually did.  And to have members of the United States Senate only recently informed of the negative impact of this bill on our service members and our diplomats is, in itself, embarrassing.  For those senators then to move forward in overriding the President’s veto that would prevent those negative consequences is an abdication of their basic responsibilities as elected representatives of the American people.”[15]

Furthermore, said the Press Secretary, “these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today.  You’ve got to give some credit to Harry Reid.  He showed some courage.  The same can’t be said for the other 96 members of the Senate who voted today.”

The same day President Obama on CNN said that a few lawmakers who backed the bill weren’t aware of its potential impact and that he wished Congress “had done what’s hard.” CIA Director John Brennan said he was concerned about how Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, would interpret the bill. He said the Saudis provide significant amounts of information to the U.S. to help foil extremist plots. “It would be an absolute shame if this legislation, in any way, influenced the Saudi willingness to continue to be among our best counterterrorism partners,” Brennan said.[16]

On September 29, after the House had voted and JASTA became law, Press Secretary Earnest added, “I think what we’ve seen in the United States Congress is a pretty classic case of rapid-onset buyer’s remorse.  Within minutes of casting their vote to put that bill into law, you had members of the United States Senate — some 28 of them — write a letter expressing deep concern about the potential impact of the bill they just passed.  The suggestion on the part of some members of the Senate was that they didn’t know what they were voting for, that they didn’t understand the negative consequences of the bill. That’s a hard suggestion to take seriously when you had letters from President Bush’s attorney general and national security advisor warning about the consequences of the bill.  You had attorneys from our closest allies in Europe expressing their concerns about the impact of the bill.  You had a letter from some of America’s business leaders, including Chief Executive of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, warning about the potential economic consequences of the bill.  You had letters from the Director of the CIA, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief all warning about the potential impact of the bill.”[17]

Conclusion

As indicated above, certain Senators indicated their intent to pursue amendments to JASTA to remedy what they see as problems with the statute. This will be the subject of future posts.

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[1] White House, Veto Message from the President—S.2040 (Sept. 23, 2016) Afterwards Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, discussed whether there was congressional opposition to overriding the veto and criticism of the bill from Saudi Arabia and “a lot of other countries, including the European Union. White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/26/16; White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/27/16.

[2] Assoc. Press, Lawmakers Vow to Override Obama’s Veto of Sept. 11 bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2016).

[3] Cornyn, Cornyn Statement on President’s Veto of JASTA (Sept. 23, 2016).

[4] Demirjian & Ellperin, Congress overrides Obama’s veto of 9/11 bill, Wash, Post (Sept, 28, 2016).

[5] Cornyn, Cornyn Op-Ed: give 9/11 Families a Legal Avenue (Sept. 28, 2016).

[6] Editorial, The Risks of Sueing the Saudis for 9/11, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016)

[7] Steinhauer, Mazzetti & Davis, Congress Votes to Override Obama Veto on 9/11 Victims Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016); Eilpirin & Demirjian, Congress thwarts Obama on bill allowing 9/11 lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, Wash. Post (Sept. 28, 2016).

[8] Cong. Rec. S6166-73 (Sept. 28, 2016).

[9] The prior post about the initial passage of JASTA started with the 2015 introduction of the bill and did not attempt to cover earlier versions of the bill or the process referenced by Senator Cornyn. Comments about this earlier process would be much appreciated.

[10] This bipartisan letter was signed by 15 Democrat Senators (Bennet, Cardin, Carper, Coons, Feinstein, Heitkamp, Hirono, McCaskill, Merkley, Nelson, Reed, Schatz, Shaheen, Udall and Warner), 12 Republican Senators (Alexander, Coats, Corker, Cotton, Flake, Graham, McCain, Risch, Roberts, Rounds, Sullivan and Thune) and Independent Senator King.

[11] Cardin, Cardin Statement on JASTA Veto Vote (Sept. 28, 2016).

[12] Feinstein, Feinstein Statement on Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Sept. 28, 2016).

[13] Cong. Record H6023-32 (Sept. 28, 2016).

[14] The United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Property is certainly relevant to the issue of international law on the subject. Representative Thornberry, however, failed to quote the entirety of Article 12 of this treaty and thereby reached an erroneous conclusion that it supports JASTA. That Article states, “Unless otherwise agreed between the States concerned, a State cannot invoke immunity from jurisdiction before a court of another State which is otherwise competent in a proceeding which relates to pecuniary compensation for death or injury to the person, or damage to or loss of tangible property, caused by an act or omission which is alleged to be attributable to the State, if the act or omission occurred in whole or in part in the territory of that other State and if the author of the act or omission was present in that territory at the time of the act or omission.” The portion in bold was not quoted by Thornberry.  Moreover, this treaty is not yet in force because its Article 30 requires 30 states to become parties thereto, and to date only 21 states have done so, and the U.S. has neither signed nor ratified this treaty.

[15] White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Fort Lee, Virginia 9/28/16.

[16] Assoc. Press, Congress Rebukes Obama, Overrides Veto of 9/11 Legislation, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016); Reuters, Congress Rejects Obama Veto, Saudi Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Sept, 28, 2016).

[17] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Secretary of Education King (Sept. 29, 2016).

 

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).) 

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.