Open Letter to U.S. Senate from 70 Former Senators

On February 25, the Washington Post published an open letter to the U.S. Senate  from 70 former senators (by my count, 48 Democrats, 18 Republicans and 4 Independents), including three from my State of Minnesota (Dean Barkley (Ind.), Mark Dayton (Dem.) and Dave Durenberger (Rep.)). [1]

The Letter’s Contents

“Congress is not fulfilling its constitutional duties. Much of the responsibility rests on the Senate. We are writing to encourage the creation of a bipartisan caucus of incumbent senators who would be committed to making the Senate function as the Framers of the Constitution intended.”

“As their first priority, the Framers explicitly entrusted all legislative responsibility in Article I of the Constitution: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” To the extent that Congress doesn’t function as the Framers intended, policymaking is left to the less democratic executive and judicial branches.”

“Examples of Congress ceding its powers to the executive through the years include the power to regulate international trade, the power to authorize the use of military force in foreign conflicts and, when the president declares national emergencies, the power of the purse. In addition, the partisan gridlock that is all too routine in recent decades has led the executive branch to effectively “legislate” on its own terms through executive order and administrative regulation. The Senate’s abdication of its legislative and oversight responsibilities erodes the checks and balances of the separate powers that are designed to protect the liberties on which our democracy depends.”

“Anecdotally, we have been told by sitting members that the diminished state of the Senate has left them doubting whether there is any point in continuing to serve, and it has caused potential candidates to question whether the reality of Senate membership is worth the considerable effort and expense of running for office.”

“We do not want to give the impression that we served in some golden age when the Senate operated like clockwork and its members embraced one another as one big happy family. Of course, that was never the case. Senators have always advanced strongly held positions and have vigorously engaged in legislative combat. All of us have vivid memories of tense times with difficult colleagues. But that is just the point. By design, the Senate is the place where Americans with all their competing interests and ideologies are represented and where champions of those positions attempt to advance their causes and work through their differences. Many call the legislative process ‘sausage making.’ That is a fair assessment. Legislating is often messy, but it is America’s way of holding together a diverse nation.”

“Our concern is that the legislative process is no longer working in the Senate. Several factors may be cited: Senate committees have lost responsibility for writing legislation. Rules allowing extended debate, a feature of the Senate that is essential to protecting the rights of minorities, have been abused as the filibuster and cloture have shut down action on the Senate floor. It is now commonly said that it takes 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate. This is new and obstructionist; it takes 60 votes to invoke cloture in the once relatively exceptional event of a filibuster. Filibusters are now threatened as a matter of course, and are too readily acceded to. Neither in committee nor on the floor do rank-and-file members have reasonable opportunities to advance their positions by voting on legislation.”

“We believe a bipartisan caucus of incumbent members that promotes a fair opportunity for senators to participate in meaningful committee work as well as on the Senate floor could help restore the Senate to its essential place in our constitutional system. Its members would need to stand firm in the face of what could be strong opposition from partisans who prefer politicians who take intransigent positions over those who champion a legislative process that celebrates compromise.”

“This does not have to be viewed as a judgment on today’s Senate leadership; instead, it’s a bipartisan act of shared responsibility and accountability for how we arrived at this point. We, who once held the office you now hold and who are confident that service in the U.S. Senate is as high a calling for you as it was for us, will stand up for you against any partisan opposition. We will do so publicly and repeatedly in whatever available forums. And we are convinced that many ordinary Americans will stand up for you as well, as they share our concern for the state of our government.”

“We know that accepting this challenge may put some of you at political risk. But we are also confident that each of you chose to serve in public life to advance the cause of a “more perfect union.” Our hope is that all of you will accept this challenge to advance that timeless and higher purpose. The Senate — and the proper functioning of our republic — are simply too important to be allowed to continue on their present course.”

Comments

Thank you to all 70 of the former senators for taking this public action. As a citizen observer, I agree that “the Congress is not fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities,” that “much of the responsibility rests on the U.S. Senate,” that “Congress has ceded too much power to the executive,” that “committees have lost responsibility for writing legislation” and that there has been “abuse of the [Senate’s] filibuster and cloture rules.”

However, regrettably it seems unlikely to this citizen that during the next eight months of a presidential and senatorial election campaign that there will be the creation of a bipartisan senatorial caucus to reform various Senate procedures.

Moreover, such an effort obviously assumes no changes in the basic constitutional structure of the Senate. For this citizen, a major defect of the current Constitution is the assignment of two senate seats to every state regardless of population and hence the over-representation of land, instead of citizens. That, of course, would require a constitutional amendment. One such amendment would keep two senators for every state under a weighted voting system granting larger votes to the two senators from California, for example. [2]

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[1] 70 former U.S. senators: The Senate is failing to perform its constitutional duties, Wash. Post (Feb. 25, 2020). 

[2] See The Antiquated Constitutional Structure of the U.S. Senate, dwkcommentaries.com.(Oct. 23, 2016). See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com:  U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule Under Attack (May 15, 2012); Former U.S. Senator and Vice President, Walter Mondale, Supports Changing the  Senate Filibuster Rule (.May 15, 2012); District Court Dismisses Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule (Dec. 22, 2012); U.S. Senate Adopts Modest Reform of Its Filibuster Rule (Jan. 24, 2013);U.S. Needs More Democratization (Feb. 14, 2020); Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis (Feb. 15, 2020). 

Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis

A prior post reviewed the recent Ezra Klein column (and related book) that argued for “reducing the polarization of American politics by democratization, including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” https://dwkcommentaries.com/2020/02/14/u-s-needs-more-democratization/

Two respected political commentators–Norman J. Ornstein, a noted author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ross Douthat, a self-proclaimed conservative New York Times columnist–have discussed the Klein book, which was the basis for his column.

Norman Ornstein[1]

The Klein book cites research by political scientists showing that split ticket voting in presidential and congressional elections has virtually disappeared, that self-proclaimed independents now vote more predictably for one party over another and that such voters are now more motivated by their antipathy for the other party rather than affinity for their own. Related to all of this is the emergence of political mega-identities: “Republicans have become more cultlike and resistant to compromise or moderation” while “Democrats have an immune system of diversity and democracy.”

Ornstein also endorses Klein’s opinion that “baked into the political system devised by our framers is an increasing bias toward geography and away from people. As the country becomes more diverse, the representation and power in our politics will grow even less reflective of that dynamism. . . . At some point, the fundamental legitimacy of the system will be challenged.”

Therefore, in the book, Klein calls for eliminating the Electoral College and the Senate filibuster, allowing Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to become states and taking steps to make the House of Representatives more reflective of the country. “Of course, even these measures , commendable though they may be, are a very heavy lift.”

Ross Douthat[2]

Douthat also takes on the more expansive statement of Ezra Klein’s opinions in his book, “Why We’re Polarized.”  [1]

This book, says Douthat, correctly debunks the theory that “the cure for division is just to educate people about the Right Answers to complicated policy disputes.”

Then Douthat counters Klein by relying on two other recent books, Christopher Caldwell’s “Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties” and Michael Lind’s “The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite.” 

According to Douthat, Caldwell, another conservative author and New York Times contributing opinion writer,  sees the current polarization as due to the 1960’s reformers creating “through the Civil Rights Act, a structure of judicial and bureaucratic supervision and redress that gradually expanded into a rival constitutional system. This so-called  ‘Second Constitution’ is organized around the advancement of groups claiming equality, not the protection of citizens enjoying liberties. And so the claims these groups make must be privileged over and against both the normal legislative process and the freedoms of speech and religion and association that the original Constitution protects.”

Lind’s book, says Douthat, sees the current polarization as “the consolidation of economic power by a ‘managerial’ upper class'” and the resulting weakening of “any institution — from churches and families to union shops and local industries — that might grant real power to groups outside the gilded city, the Silicon Valley bubble, the Ivy League gate.” This phenomenon coupled with libertarianism of Regan and Thacher promoted “economic and social permissiveness . . . [and] a new class divide, between thriving meritocratic hubs and a declining and demoralized heartland, . . . [that] explains both the frequency of populist irruptions and their consistent futility.”

The above two books, however, in Douthat’s opinion, fail to acknowledge the importance of the “secularization and institutional-Christian decline” and resulting religious polarization as important trends contributing to polarization. which Douthat will address in a future column.

Note that Douthat does not address Klein’s point about American polarization being connected with the structure of American government giving greater weight to geographical units than to the number of people.

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[1] Ornstein, Why America’s Political Divisions Will Only Get Worse, N.Y. Times Book Review (Feb. 9, 2020).

[2] Douthat, The Many Polarizations of America, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2020).

 

U.S. Needs More Democratization

A New York Times article by Ezra Klein makes a strong argument for the United States needing more democratization in order to depolarize American politics.[1]

He starts this analysis with the assertion that the current polarization of U.S. politics is due to ideological changes: “the Democratic Party has moved left, and the Republican Party has moved right. But more fundamentally, those changes are compositional: Democrats have become more diverse, urban, young and secular, and the Republican Party has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters.”

As a result, “Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. . . . [Democrats] can move to the left — and they are — but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power. Democrats are modestly, but importantly, restrained by diversity and democracy. Republicans are not.”

In addition, the two parties’ voters differ in what sources of information they respect and listen to. Democrats trusted “22 of the 30 sources, including center-right outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Republicans trusted only seven of the 30 sources, with PBS, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal the only mainstream outlets with significant trust.” (The other trusted sources, for Republicans were, big surprise, Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart.)

Even though Democrats have won the recent total popular vote in elections for the U.S. presidency, the U.S. Senate and the U.S.House of Representatives, the Republicans currently control the presidency, the Senate and a majority of governorships. This is due to the structure of the U.S. government which “counts states and districts rather than people, and the G.O.P.’s more rural coalition has a geographic advantage that offsets its popular disadvantage.”

This Republican advantage, however, may be temporary.  Republicans “represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes.”

Klein, therefore, concludes that “one of the few real hopes for depolarizing American politics is democratization,” including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” This would compel the Republican Party to become a “more moderate and diverse party.” However, “precisely because the Republican Party sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future, it will use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.”

Without such changes, Klein argues, the U.S. will face “ a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.”

Conclusion

Klein is right to call for the need for more democratization of the U.S. electoral system.

But while mentioning the U.S. system’s favoring land and districts over people, he does not attack directly those features that do just that: the Electoral College for electing the U.S. president, the allocation of two U.S. senators to each state regardless of population and state legislatures creating the boundaries for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, this would require amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which may be next to impossible, but they should be mentioned.

Alex Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board, however, points out one facet of the  Electoral College: whether the individuals selected by the political parties are legally obligated to vote for that party’s successful candidate in the popular election when the 536 electors meet about six weeks after the popular election. Indeed, that very issue is now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court in two related cases from the federal appellate court in Colorado and a state court in Washington State. In the federal case, the court held that the founders clearly intended for electors to act independently and vote according to their consciences, not to the dictates of any political party. Once a state appoints an elector, the lower court said, its power over that elector ends. They cannot punish someone, or replace him or her, for voting a certain way. This issue, says Wegman, raises the more important question, why do we have to have the Electoral College?[2]

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[1] Klein, Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, N. Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020). Klein is an American journalist, blogger, and political commentator who co-founded Vox, where he is currently editor-at-large. He was previously a blogger and columnist for The Washington Post and an associate editor of The American Prospect. He has served as a contributor to Bloomberg News and MSNBC. (Ezra Klein, Wikipedia.)

[2] Wegman, Why Do We Have an Electoral College, Again?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020).

 

 

More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights

Carol Giacomo, a member of the New York Times Editorial Board and a former diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, has expressed her concern over the State Department’s creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights,[1] which was discussed in prior posts.[2]

She says the Department’s Human Rights Bureau and Congress were not included in the decision to establish this Commission. Instead it was a personal project of Secretary Pompeo and that next month the Department plans to say more about it. This underscores the concern that this commission is motivated by conservative political and religious beliefs and organizations.

This concern, she claims, also is illustrated by Vice President Pence’s promotion of religious freedom as “our first freedom” and arguing that human rights are becoming politicized and conflated with economic and social goals.

Another is a statement by a conservative religion commentator, R.R. Reno, that he is “increasingly against human rights” which “as the epitome of social responsibility short-circuits collective judgment and stymies action for the sake of the common good.” Reno is the Editor of First Things, a publication of the Institute on Religion and Public Life that “keeps its eyes on first things: our religious faith, love of family and neighbor, the sanctity of life, the achievements of Western civilization, and the dignity of the human person.”

Giacomo also reports that the House of Representatives is considering a proposal to restrict funding for this new entity while several Democratic senators have sent a letter to Secretary Pompeo expressing “deep concern” with the process and intent of this decision.

Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale law professor who was assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration, said that a shift to “natural law” would conflict with the view that “modern human rights are based on the dignity inherent in all human beings, not on God-given rights.”

Conclusion

This blogger strives to follow Jesus as a member of a Presbyterian church and believes that religious freedom is a basic human right for all people in the world. But he worries that this Commission and related actions might be surreptitious ways to advance a conservative political and religious agenda and to promote the re-election of Donald Trump. Therefore, this blogger thinks that attention should be paid to this Commission and related activities of this Administration.

For example, for his year’s celebration of the Fourth of July, President Trump reportedly will deliver a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. [3]  Perhaps he will use that occasion to proclaim about unalienable rights.

Not mentioned by Giacomo, but probably related to the new Commission, was last July’s first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that was hosted by the State Department and that will be discussed in a future post.

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[1] Giacomo, A New Trump Battleground: Defining Human Rights, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2019.

[2] Is The Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com(June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (June 17, 2019).

[3] Nirappil, Hermann & Jamison, Officials: Trump to speak at Lincoln Memorial during July Fourth celebration, Wash. Post (June 5,, 2019).

Senator Leahy’s Senate Floor Speech To End Embargo of Cuba

As mentioned in a prior post, on February 7, Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) introduced the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (S.428) with cosponsors Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Michael Enzi (Rep., WY)./

On February 15, Senator Leahy delivered a lengthy and persuasive speech on the Senate floor supporting this bill and ending the embargo. Here is the text of that speech.

After commending Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) for introducing this bill and urging other Senators to support the bill,, Senator Leahy said, “This bill is about ending the anachronistic prohibitions in U.S. law that for decades have limited U.S. engagement with Cuba, including preventing American companies from exporting their products to Cuba.  The fact that legislation to do so is even necessary is illustrative of the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves.  Companies from Europe, Russia, China, Mexico, and every other country can sell their products to Cuba, which is just 90 miles from our coast, but American manufacturers and retailers are largely shut out of the Cuban market. . . . This bill would enable American companies to compete, which every believer in a free market should support.”

“It is also important for Senators to know that punitive actions by the Trump Administration last year to further restrict the right of Americans to travel to Cuba have had devastating consequences for Cuba’s fledgling private sector – the very people the White House and supporters of the restrictions profess to want to help.  The fact that they have said nothing about the harm they are causing Cuba’s struggling entrepreneurs demonstrates that they care more about continuing their failed policy of sanctions, regardless of who they hurt, than about helping the Cuban people or about protecting the right of Americans to travel freely.” 

“The latest ill-conceived attempt by the White House to punish Cuba would permit Title III of the Helms-Burton Act to go into effect.  This would allow, among others, individuals who were Cuban citizens when their property in Cuba was expropriated half a century ago to sue in U.S. courts any Cuban, foreign, and even American company whose business in Cuba today uses that property.  That could be an airport, port, warehouse, hotel, restaurant, you name it.  Virtually every American and foreign company investing in Cuba would suddenly be liable for treble damages.”

“The purpose, as the law’s authors made clear when it was enacted 23 years ago, is to harm Cuba’s economy by making it completely inhospitable for foreign investment.”

“As my friend in the House, Representative Jim McGovern (Dem., MA), has pointed out –

  • ‘It’s no mystery why Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump blocked Title III from going into effect every six months for the past 23 years.’
  • ‘It is hypocritical – it penalizes companies for doing what American companies do all over the world.’
  • It is contrary to international law, which recognizes the right of expropriation and requires compensation.’
  • ‘It is an extraterritorial sanction that guarantees a response from our trading partners, like Canada, Spain and the EU, including complaints at the World Trade Organization.’
  • ‘And if you care about agriculture, be warned: It will open a new front in the trade war, with all the repercussions that can bring.’
  • ‘It will allow Cuba to claim victim status and rally international support.’
  • ‘It will clog our courts with lawsuits.’
  • ‘It will make it impossible to negotiate compensation for U.S. claims in Cuba, and, in the end, hurt the very Americans who seek compensation for the property they lost.’
  • ‘It will divide us from friends and allies who are now working for a peaceful solution in Venezuela.’
  • ‘And it will guarantee that new investment in Cuba will come from the Russians, Chinese and others who are hostile to the United States, and whose state-owned companies can’t be sued in U.S. courts.’

“I agree with my friend in the other body [Rep. McGovern].  What the White House is considering would trigger an avalanche of unintended consequences that would bring U.S. commerce with Cuba to a halt, harm relations with our allies in this hemisphere and beyond, and make resolving property claims more difficult.  I ask unanimous consent that a piece by William LeoGrande on Title III of the Helms-Burton Act published in the February 13, 2019 issue of OnCubaNews be printed in the Record following my remarks.” [This article will be published in a separate post to this blog.]

Like “many issues, Members of Congress have strong feelings pro and con about U.S. relations with Cuba.  It is no secret that, after more than half a century of a policy of isolation that has achieved none of its objectives and primarily hurt the Cuban people, I, like Senators Klobuchar and Enzi and many others in this body, favor closer relations.”

“Conversely, there are those in Congress and the Trump Administration who believe strongly that we should ratchet up the pressure on the Cuban government in an attempt to achieve those elusive goals.”

“I have often spoken publicly about the lack of political freedom and civil liberties in Cuba.  But I also think it is important to try to be objective:  to criticize when called for and to acknowledge positive changes when they occur.”

“I recognize that those who favor maintaining the failed economic embargo have a longstanding, visceral antagonism and resentment toward the Cuban government.  While they rarely, if ever, mention the corrupt and brutal Batista regime that enjoyed unqualified U.S. support until it was overthrown in 1959, they have legitimate reasons to criticize the mistreatment of the Cuban people by the current government and its support for the corrupt and repressive Maduro regime in Venezuela.”

“But they too should acknowledge that threatening and bullying Cuba has not worked.  In fact it has made the situation worse, and provided an excuse for the Cuban government to blame its own failures on us.  They should also acknowledge positive changes in Cuba, but they never do.  Not ever.  It is almost as if they are psychologically, ideologically, or emotionally incapable of saying one positive thing about the Cuban government, no matter what positive things it does.”   

“Perhaps they are afraid that if they did, they would alienate their donors in the Cuban-American community.  Of course, we know that Cuban-Americans are divided about the U.S. embargo.  Some are hardcore believers in the embargo, and they always will be.  But at least as many – and increasing numbers – oppose the embargo, especially those who were born after the Cuban revolution.” 

“I wonder what the pro-embargo isolationists would say if the Cuban government were to stop harassing and abusing dissidents who favor a more democratic system.  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?” 

“What if the Cuban government decided to embrace a free market economy and let private businesses flourish?  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?”

“I doubt it.  I doubt it because no matter what positive reforms occur in Cuba, they will continue to defend the embargo until Cuba is a full-fledged democracy and those who currently hold power either die or are voted out of office.” 

“We all want Cuba to become a democracy, where civil and political rights are respected, and the sooner the better.  But those same defenders of the embargo support billions of dollars in U.S. aid – and weapons sales – to countries that are led by authoritarian, brutal, and corrupt dictatorships and monarchies, some of which have held power for decades or generations.”    

“How do the pro-embargo diehards reconcile that?  They don’t and they can’t.”

“The fact is, Cuba is changing.  Not nearly as fast as we and the Cuban people would like, but it is changing in ways that few would have predicted not very long ago.”

“Last year, Raul Castro’s hand-picked successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, became President and he promised a government more accessible and responsive to the people’s needs.  How he delivers on that promise remains to be seen.”   

“Since 2010, after the Cuban government recognized that the Internet is essential if Cuba wants to be part of the modern world, Internet access has exploded.  The government has opened hundreds of public Wi-Fi hot spots and cyber cafes in the past five years, and home Internet access became legal and available in 2017.  Today, almost half of the Cuban people have personal cell phones that were illegal just a decade ago.”

“As others have pointed out, these changes have encouraged new forms of communication, networking and organizing via social media.”

“But change does not come easily in Cuba, as it does not in many countries.  Last July, the government announced onerous new regulations on the private sector, covering a wide range of issues:  food safety, labor contracts, procurement, taxation, limits on the size of private businesses.  The new rules were an attempt by hardliners to crack down on the private sector, which was criticized for black marketeering.”

“But private entrepreneurs resisted, and they challenged the regulations as contradictory to the government’s own plans that recognizes the private sector as important to economic growth and employment. They appealed to government officials and spoke publicly about the harm the new rules would have on their businesses.”

“When the final regulations were issued, several that had caused the most resentment were dropped.  According to the Minister of Labor and Social Security, the decision to revise the rules was due to ‘the opinion and experiences of those directly involved.’”

“The government also retreated on a new law – Decree 349 – requiring artists, musicians and performers to register with the state and pay a large commission on their earnings from private engagements, and it banned work with objectionable content and empowered inspectors to shut down any offensive exhibition or performance.  Clearly, an attempt to further limit free expression.”

“Since the 1980s, Cuban artists have had more freedom to be critical of the government than other social sectors, and so it was not surprising that Decree 349 ignited widespread protests.  After social media was used to mobilize opposition within the Cuban arts community and among artists abroad, the government agreed not to enforce the law until implementing regulations are drafted in consultation with the arts community.”

“According to one observer, ‘during [the latter half of last year], nearly 8.9 million Cubans debated the draft of a new constitution in their workplaces, neighborhoods and schools.  Communist Party members were told not to argue with even the most radical proposals for amendments, and the ensuing debates were freewheeling, often lasting past their scheduled time.  Among the main topics: whether the president and state governors should be directly elected by voters; whether the concentration of wealth and property should be allowed; whether term limits and age limits for leaders were a good idea; and whether the Communist Party should be subordinated to the constitution and hence the law.”  Not long ago it would have been unthinkable to openly debate these issues, especially as part of a constitutional reform process.”

“One article that attracted intense debate recognized same-sex marriage, and was promoted by Raul Castro’s daughter, a long-time activist for LGBTQ rights. The proposal sparked strong opposition from evangelical churches supported by the Catholic Church.  Gay rights advocates countered with campaigns of their own.  The chance of a significant ‘no’ vote on the entire constitutional reform led the government to drop the provision from the final draft of the constitution with a pledge to consider it later.”

“This surge in mobilization by well-organized constituencies utilizing social media to resist government policy, from burdensome private sector regulations to gay marriage, is unprecedented in Cuba.  The government’s willingness to not only tolerate these organized challenges but to change policies in response to them, is significant. “   

“As has been noted, none of these issues dealt with the rigid structure of the Cuban system.  Cuba remains a one party state, in which those who challenge the system are treated as criminals.  But the precedent of organized interest groups mounting successful campaigns to challenge and change government policy is now established, which is positive.” 

“None of the longstanding critics of the Cuban government in the U.S. Congress or the Cuban-American community [has] acknowledged any of this, nor are they likely too.  For them, anything less than a wholesale change of government in Cuba is unworthy of mention, even though they apply a very different standard – a double standard – to other authoritarian governments.  In fact, they would ridicule anyone who regards such changes as positive or worthy of recognition.”

“As we know from our own experience, political reform is difficult.  Our own Electoral College, an anachronism designed to protect a slave-holding minority, remains in effect more than two centuries later.  Five times, in the world’s oldest democracy, it has prevented the winner of the most popular votes from being elected president.”  

“The Cuban people want to live better and they want a lot less government control over their lives.  Armed with cell phones and the Internet they are going to make increasing demands of their government.  This is happening at a time when Venezuela’s economy is collapsing and the survival of the Maduro regime, Cuba’s closest ally in the hemisphere, is in question.  Not surprisingly, the Cuban government is trying to limit the pace of change and to secure other benefactors.  It is turning increasingly to Russia, Algeria, Iran and other countries that welcome the chance to challenge U.S. influence in this hemisphere.” 

“This is a time for the United States to be actively and visibly engaged in Cuba, for Americans to be traveling to Cuba, for expanding educational, cultural, and professional exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, and for American companies to be competing in Cuba.  It is not a time to return to a failed policy of threats and ultimatums, driven by domestic politics rather than by what is in our national interests.”

“That is why I am cosponsoring the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act.  And it is why I intend to support other bipartisan legislation to replace our failed Cuba policy with one that serves America’s interests, not the interests of a shrinking minority, and not the interests of Russia and other countries that are reaping the economic benefits of our self-defeating policy of isolation.”

Reaction

I concur in the rationale and conclusion of this speech: end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

While I believe there is valid documentation of the Senator’s assertion that Cuba has limits on free speech and assembly, he views this in isolation from Cuba’s situation. Cuba is a small country facing the vastly larger and more powerful  U.S., which for many years has had various hostile policies and actions against Cuba, including secret and undercover so-called “democracy promotion” programs on the island. In that context, it should be easy to understand why Cuba is concerned about dissidents and free speech and assembly.  Accordingly reliable U.S. assertions about the abolition of so called “democracy promotion” programs on the island should be a precondition to improving Cuban freedoms of speech and assembly.

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Senator Leahy,  Statement of Senator Leahy On the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (Feb. 15, 2019). 

New Bill To End U.S. Embargo of Cuba

On February 7, U.S.Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem.,MN) introduced a bill in the Senate to end the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba: S.428: A bill to lift the trade embargo on Cuba.

The bill has two initial cosponsors: Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Michael Enzi (Rep., WY) and was referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

In a press release Senator Klobuchar said the bill “would eliminate the legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba and 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.”

Senator Klobuchar added, “Instead of looking to the future, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined for far too long by conflicts of the past. Cuba is an island of 11 million people, just 90 miles from our border—lifting the trade embargo will open the door to a huge export market, create jobs here at home, and support both the American and Cuban economies. Our bipartisan legislation will finally 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.”

Cosponsor Senator Enzi stated,“History has shown that the embargo with Cuba has not been very effective. This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people in America and in Cuba. It would provide new opportunities for American businesses, farmers and ranchers. We need to open dialogue and the exchange of ideas and commerce that would help move Cuba forward. It is time to work toward positive change.” 

The other cosponsor, Senator Leahy commented, “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, but President Trump has reinstated the failed isolationist policy of the past.  It is 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 Cuban market.  Lifting the embargo will put more food on the plates of the Cuban people, allow them to access quality U.S. products, and encourage 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. The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act repeals 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.

The legislation has been endorsed by Engage Cuba, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, and Cargill.

This blogger over the last eight years repeatedly has called for ending the embargo and presses the Senate and House to pass this or a similar bill and for the President to sign same.

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Klobuchar Press Release: Klobuchar-Enzi-Leahy Introduce Major Legislation To Lift Cuba Trade Embargo (Feb. 8, 2019); Enzi Press Release: Bipartisan coalition in Senate introduce legislation to lift Cuba trade embargo (Feb. 8, 2019); Leahy Press Release: Klobuchar, Enzi, Leahy Introduce Major Legislation to Lift Cuba trade embargo (Feb. 8, 2019). 

Senate Passes Bill To Expand Agricultural Exports to Cuba  

On June 28, the U.S. Senate passed, 86-11, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R.2) that relates, in part,  to U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.[1]

After an amendment introduced by Senators Heitkamp (Dem., ND) and Boozman (Rep., AR) to allow for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct foreign market development programs in Cuba passed the Senate Agriculture Committee by unanimous consent on June 13, Senator Rubio (Rep., FL) expressed his opposition to the provision and a willingness to delay consideration of the full bill.[2]

Rubio first introduced an amendment on June 26 to deny export promotion until Cuba holds “free and fair elections for a new government,” but by June 27,  he had changed his approach. Speaking on the Senate floor, he said, “I am not going to object to the ability of American farmers to market our products to a market… But while you are there… you can promote it, but you just can’t spend any of these taxpayer dollars at any of the facilities or businesses controlled or owned by the Cuban military.”

Ultimately, after negotiation between Senators Rubio, Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Cruz (Rep., TX), on one side, and Senators Flake (Rep., AZ), Heitkamp, and Boozman on the other, the bill passed the Senate with the USDA export promotion provision intact, and a modifying provision that states financial transactions must adhere to restrictions set out in current regulations, including a prohibition on “transactions with entities owned, controlled, or operated by or on behalf of military intelligence or security services of Cuba.” Most U.S. entities are already barred from engaging in transactions with the businesses on this list.[3]

The bill on June 21 had passed the House, 213-211. The Senate and House versions will now go to a conference committee to try to iron out the differences.[4]

Obviously Rubio’s efforts to impose his anti-Cuba positions on everything failed this time although he publicly will never admit to such a defeat. Instead he proclaims his qualification to promotion of trade with Cuba as a victory.

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[1] Carney, Senate passes mammoth farm bill, The Hill (June 28, 2018).

[2] Ctr. Democracy in Americas, Cuba Central News Brief: 06/29/2018.

[3] Rubio Supports Farm Bill with Important Provisions for Florida Citrus and Agriculture (June 28, 2018).

[4] Library of Congress: Thomas, H.R.2-Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018.