Two Major U.S. Groups Urge Congress To Promote U.S. Trade and Travel with Cuba

This month two major U.S. groups have reiterated pleas to Congress to promote U.S. trade and travel with Cuba. They are the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba and Engage Cuba. Here is a report on those efforts.

U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba

On June 8, 2015, the Agricultural Coalition, an association of more than 90 U.S. agricultural companies and state and national organizations committed to normalizing exports of food and agricultural products to Cuba, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations.[1]

The letter reiterated the Coalition’s opposition “to any effort to restrict trade and travel with the nation of Cuba—including possible amendments to appropriations bills or the State Department reauthorization bill.” Any such restriction “would be detrimental to the U.S. agricultural industry and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.”[2]

Indeed, the letter continued, Coalition members “share a commitment to liberalizing trade between the United States and Cuba.  We support Congressional action to expand opportunities for U.S. agriculture by normalizing commercial relations with Cuba and, ultimately, ending the Cuban embargo.”

Because of existing restrictions in U.S. law about trade with Cuba, the letter further stated, the U.S. agriculture “industry is losing out on valuable opportunities to market U.S. food and agriculture products in Cuba. U.S. farmers, ranchers, and food businesses should not be losing out to other countries like Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Vietnam, and countries in the European Union.  Cuba is a logical export market for the U.S. industry.”

Engage Cuba

On June 16, 2105, Engage Cuba formally commenced its operations in Washington, D.C. as a coalition of major corporations, business associations and non-profit groups. Its members include the National Foreign Trade Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Council of the Americas, the American Society of Travel Agents, Third Way, #CubaNow, the Cuba Study Group and the Center for Democracy in the Americas. It also works directly with many leading businesses, including Procter & Gamble, Cargill, Caterpillar, Choice Hotels and The Havana Group,[3]

This coalition on June 16 started an ad campaign called “Guess What?” that is being broadcast on Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC. It calls for ending travel and trade bans on Cuba.[4]

The Engage Cuba press releases stated the various provisions that seek to halt reconciliation with Cuba that House Republicans had inserted into pending appropriations bills. He said they were “like the last gasps of a defeated army that’s in retreat. They are just trying to delay the inevitable. The Senate will not support those versions of the bill[s] and the White House already has said they would [veto them]. So they [have a] zero chance of becoming law.”

This theme about pending legislation was expanded in a June 16 article by Williams and two other Engage Cuba leaders (Steven Law and Luke Albee).[5] They said, “While there are plenty of big fights still to be had, bipartisan progress is clearly emerging on an unlikely issue: Cuba policy.” As “examples of seeking compromise and working across party lines,” they cited the bill to end the ban on U.S. travel (S.299) offered by Republican Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) and the recent bill to end the embargo (S.1543) offered by Republican Senator Jerry Moran (KS) and Independent Senator Angus King (ME).

Engage Cuba, they said, “reflects that same bipartisan spirit. The founder of the group (James Williams) is a public policy adviser to philanthropists with strong ties to the Obama Administration. Its top two advisers come from opposite sides of the political barricades: Steven Law runs American Crossroads and Luke Albee is a well-known Democrat who served more than two decades in Congress as Chief of Staff to Sens. Leahy and Warner (Dem.,VA).”

This article concluded with an urgent call for that bipartisan spirit and effort to combat “provisions . . . [to House of Representatives’] funding bills to try to roll Cuba policy back to a Cold War posture, even as embassies are in the process of being announced. The bills immediately drew veto threats, and it’s clear they have little chance of getting through the Senate with those measures. However, progress isn’t going to be made by fighting rear-guard actions; we need to move our policy toward Cuba in a new, positive direction.”

On January 15, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) hosted a party at a Washington, D.C. bar to celebrate the launching of Engage Cuba. People from that coalition were joined by other senators; Roberta S. Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and the U.S.’ chief negotiator in the Cuba talks; and José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, Cuba’s ambassador-in-waiting as chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

Flake,  Rodriguez, collin and Roberts
Rodriguez, Flake, Collins and Roberts

Senator Flake had just returned from another trip to Cuba, this time with Senators Susan Collins (Rep., ME) and Pat Roberts (Rep., KS). Here is a photo ot the three of them with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Afterwards, on June 15 Flake said, “To see where we are today is really heartening. The feeling I had the last couple of visits to Cuba is that the reforms . . . that have been made are irreversible. It’s full steam ahead.”[6]

Conclusion

All supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should thank both of these organizations for their efforts to do the same while also urging their Senators and Representatives to oppose the House Republican rear-guard efforts.

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[1] This Agricultural Coalition letter was the subject of an article in Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, Granma: U.S. agricultural coalition opposes trade and travel restrictions against Cuba. Granma (June 15, 2015) Prior posts discussed the Coalition’s January 2015 launching and its March 2015 trip to Cuba.

[2]  Pending policy bills against reconciliation and the anti-reconciliation inserts in appropriations bills have been discussed in posts on May 26 and 28 and June 2, 10, 12 and 16.

[3] Torres, Major U.S. companies support new group that will lobby to lift sanctions against Cuba, Miami Herald (June 16, 2015). A prior post discussed the organization of Engage Cuba. Engage Cuba already helped helping negotiate an agreement between the Florida-based Stonegate Bank and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to resume bank transactions for the Cuban diplomatic mission, an essential requirement for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the conversion of the Section to the Cuban Embassy. The group’s website has a useful page of Facts about public opinion on reconciliation in the U.S. and in Cuba, the potential Cuban market for U.S. products and services, statements of prominent individuals supporting reconciliation and lists of reconciliation-supportive businesses, agricultural organizations, faith-based and religious organizations, human rights, development and policy organizations, and labor, environmental and travel organizations. Another useful feature of the website is a form for individuals to send an email to their members of Congress.

[4] The TV ad itself is available online, and the ad is a subject of a press release from the group.

[5] Williams, Law & Albee, On Cuba, a bipartisan path emerges, The Hill (June 16, 2015).

[6] Calmes, New Group Enjoys Thaw in U.S.-Cuba Relations with a Party, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2015)

Another U.S. Coalition for U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Engage Cuba, another U.S. coalition supporting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, is to be officially launched on June 15th.[1]

This new nonprofit advocacy group will lobby Congress to repeal the ban against doing business in or traveling to the island nation. Its goal is to create an “umbrella organization”, bringing together people from different sectors, which have different approaches and perspectives, but agree upon this reconciliation. One of its financial backers is the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents major corporations and lobbies for expansion of U.S. international trade and which has its own broader coalition (USA*Engage) against U.S. unilateral trade sanctions, including those against Cuba.

The president of Engage Cuba, James Williams, has said, “There is a broad consensus emerging from business, agriculture, policy experts, and civil society generally that Congress must end antiquated trade and travel restrictions on Americans that stand in the way of more meaningful engagement with the Cuban people.” Moreover, he has said, the Republican Party now controlling both houses of Congress has no reason to oppose this change, not even out of principle: “Republicans believe in the power of the free market and in speaking out in support of America’s values anywhere and everywhere.”

An example of such Republican support was a January 2015 joint letter to President Obama from seven prominent Republican Senators (Jeff Flake (AZ), Rand Paul (KY), Jerry Moran (KS), Pat Roberts (KS), Mike Enzi (WY), John Boozman (AR) and Susan Collins (ME). They said, “With the significance of your recent announcements related to Cuba, we look forward to Congress turning its attention toward modernizing U.S.-Cuba policy to the benefit of U.S. citizens and the Cuban people alike. Congress must play an integral role in reforming our policy toward Cuba.”

Engage Cuba’s participants include several prominent Republicans. A top advisor is Steven Law, former Deputy Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush Administration and current president of the American Crossroads super PAC, which backs Republican candidates and causes. Kristen Chadwick, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush for Legislative Affairs, will manage much of the lobbying in the House of Representatives. Billy Piper, a former top aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell, will manage the Senate lobbying.

The group also has the involvement of Democratic supporters. Luke Albee worked as an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), a strong supporter of the policy change towards Cuba. Luis Miranda, the former White House director of Hispanic media and an aide to President Obama, helped conceive of the group.

An earlier coalition with a similar purpose is the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba that was launched in January of this year and that in early March organized a large delegation’s visit to Cuba.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Tau, Top GOP, Democratic Consultants to Push Congress to End Cuba Embargo, W.S.J. (April 16, 2015); Ortiz, Engage Cuba Advocates Normal U.S.-Cuba Relations, OnCuba (April 27, 2015); Gomez, A coalition against the blockade in the corner of the white house, Granma (May 20, 2015) (Google translation). The group’s website does not yet have any substantive content.