Bernie Sanders’ Early 2014 Cuban Prison Meeting with U.S. Prisoner 

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ recent comments about Cuba and Fidel Castro resulted in journalists’ rediscovery of a meeting Sanders and two other U.S. Senators (Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND) and Jon Tester (Dem., MT)) had in February 2014 with Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen then in a Cuban prison.[1]

Gross in 2009 had been arrested in Cuba for bringing communications equipment to Jewish synagogues on the island under a subcontract with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Gross then was tried and convicted for violating Cuban laws and sentenced to 15 years in prison, and in 2014 as a result of his poor health, the U.S. was seeking his release from the Cuban prison. On December 17, 2014, as part of the U.S.-Cuba agreement to  embark on normalization of relations, Gross was released from the Cuban prison in exchange for the U.S. release of three Cubans from U.S. prison.[2]

In a March 2020 interview by National Public Radio (NPR), Gross recalled the hour-long prison meeting in February 2014 with the three senators and his pleasant conversation with Heitkamp and Tester while Sanders was silent until the end. Then Sanders said he did not see what was wrong with Cuba.

At the time Gross had lost a lot of weight and teeth as a result of mistreatment, and he told NPR that he was offended by Sanders’ comment. “I just think, you know, it was a stupid thing for him to do. First, how could he not have seen the incredible deterioration of what was once the grandeur of the pre-Castro era. And two, how could he be so insensitive to make that remark to a political hostage — me!”

Gross added in the interview, this Sanders’ comment is “relevant now. The guy’s  running for president of the United States. And for him to make those statements [in 2014] demonstrating  a basic lack of a grasp on reality is problematic for me. I don’t want to see this guy in the White House.”

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[1] Mak, Former Prisoner Recalls Sanders Saying, ‘I Don’t Know What’s So Wrong with Cuba, NPR (Mar. 4, 2020); ’I don’t know what’s so bad about this country’: Bernie Sanders told a Alan Gross prisoner in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 5, 2020); Edwards, Cuba: Sanders Meets with Imprisoned American, http://www.sanders.senate.gov (Feb. 11, 2014).

[2] Davis, Alan Gross Gains the Freedom From  Cuba He Thought Would Never Come, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2014); The American Prisoner Alan Gross and Cuban-American Relations, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2014). See also these posts of dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Embark on Reconciliation (Dec. 21, 2014); President Obama’s Strategic Timing of Announcement of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation (Dec. 26, 2014); U.S. Imprisonment of “The Cuban Five” and Their Recent Releases from U.S. Prison (Dec. 31, 2014).

 

Small Chance of Liberalized U.S. Rules for Agricultural Exports to Cuba  

The U.S.-China trade war initiated by the Trump Administration has had a significant negative impact on U.S. agricultural exports to that country. In response, some U.S. senators and representatives have been pressing for relaxation of U.S. restrictions on such exports to Cuba. These advocates include Senators Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Tine Smith (Dem., MN)  and Representatives Collin Peterson (Dem., MN) and Tom Emmer, (Rep., MN). [1]

In addition, a bipartisan group of over 60 agricultural associations, businesses and elected officials from 17 states have urged the two congressional agriculture committees to include in the pending farm bills a provision to remove restrictions on private financing of U.S. agricultural exports to the island. [2]

This week Cuba President Miguel Diaz-Canel in New York City for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly met separately with a bipartisan and bicameral group of Members of the U.S. Congress, including Sen. Ron Wyden (Dem., OR), Rep. Karen Bass (Dem., CA), Rep. Kathy Castor (Dem., FL), Rep. Robin Kelly (Dem., IL) Rep. Gregory Meeks (Dem., NY) and Rep. Roger Marshall (Rep., KA). Rep. Marshall told AG NET that the U.S. “can and should be Cuba’s number one supplier of commodities like sorghum, soy, wheat, and corn.”

But legislation to expand such exports by allowing credit sales to Cuba did not make it into the pending farm bills in both houses of the Congress, and most observers and participants think chances are nil of such a provision being added. And Senator Heitkamp’s provision in the Senate bill to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use federal funds to develop the Cuban market could easily be cut from the bill in a conference committee.

The reason has more to do with politics than economics, according to Ted Piccone, a specialist in Latin American issues at the Brookings Institution. “It basically comes down to domestic politics in Florida,” Piccone said.

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[1] Spencer, Little appetite for effort to bolster ag trade with Cuba, StarTribune (Sept. 21, 2018).

[2] Engage Cuba, Agriculture Groups Support Farm Bill Cuba Provision that Would Save $690 Million (Sept. 5, 2018).

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.