Just days away from the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, the White House announced another set of changes to American travel, trade and financial policies toward Cuba. The further easing of restrictions and the presidential trip come as three leading congressmen expect a vote before the end of the year on removing either the travel ban or the 54-year-old trade embargo.
“It's threading the eye of a needle,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn. “Is there a chance to get it done before the end of 2016? Yes, there is. But it's going to take a lot of hard work. It's going to take a lot of luck.” Emmer is the Republican co-sponsor of a bill that would eliminate the trade embargo. The proposal would allow U.S. businesses to trade freely with Cuba for the first time since Feb. 7, 1962.
Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor is the Democratic co-sponsor. “It's an audacious goal.I think it's very difficult to accomplish a lot in Washington unless you shoot for the moon.” Both Castor and Emmer point to momentum in the business community for their confidence that their bill will be called for a vote before 2016 ends. “I think it is time to lift the embargo and I do think it's entirely possible the session.”
In the U.S. Senate, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake thinks a better legislative strategy is to drop the travel ban first, then aim for doing away with the trade embargo. “If we put my Freedom to Travel bill on the Senate floor today or tomorrow, we'd have 60-plus votes easily,” he said.
None of these three are from South Florida, with its large Cuban-American population. Except for Rep. Castor, whose district is in Tampa, they don’t represent a significant number of Cuban-Americans. Members of South Florida’s congressional delegation have been steadfast in their opposition to dropping restrictions with Cuba without securing personal and economic freedoms for Cubans. However, Flake, Castor and Emmer said they are willing to push forward their legislation without support from their South Florida colleagues.
“I don't think it's a matter of trying to to change their minds,” said Emmer. “You've got to respect them. You have to understand that they have personal experience. That is something that I don't have being from the state of Minnesota.”
Castor expects her Florida colleagues to eventually support her effort “because of the business community,” among other community groups.
Why do you have an interest in Cuba?
Sen. Flake: As a Republican, this just always struck me as odd that we talk about engagement and commerce and trade and travel as being good things that would nudge the country toward democracy. But with Cuba it was always, no, it just doesn't work there. It just seemed completely inconsistent to me and a glaring inconsistency in our foreign policy. I thought that the debate was being dominated by those close to home -- the Cuban-American community in Miami or those with agricultural interests. I thought that it ought to be taken up by somebody who had none of those interests.
Rep. Castor: For a long time it was a disaster trying to get a grandchild to come visit their grandmother and try to to work through approval by a certain embassy in a certain State Department when we don't force that upon any other country in the world. We [shouldn’t] make it that difficult, especially for a country that's 90 miles away where we have such close ties.
Why the confidence that Cuba is changing for the better?
Sen. Flake: The Cuban government. I think sometimes they want more engagement, but they get spooked. We've seen that over the past decade and a half. We've gotten close to lifting the travel ban and they jail a bunch of dissidents. Now we remove restrictions on American exports but they still won't allow the wholesale market there because they want to keep that kind of control. We want freedom for the Cuban people. We want them to have a better quality of life. I think that is best done by removing restrictions on American travel and commerce in Cuba. I think the events of the past several years have borne that out. I think that we will only get more leverage to deal with issues like property claims, migration, drug policy and environmental issues in the Florida Straits.
Rep. Emmer: This is not a perfect science so someone could certainly criticize me for my subjective reaction. One reason is more openness. In eight months meeting with government officials in May 2014, [they were] defensive, closed, edgy, suspicious. Meeting with the same government officials eight months later [they were] more open (such as) giving us information about the sales of cellphones to Cubans. Not just government officials, but to Cubans now. Eight months later being open to tell us about something called the package. That's what's changed. You asked me, “How I know?” I don't, but it's palpable. You can feel it. The people are moving in the direction where they want more. And they're going to demand more.
Rep. Castor: I met Barbara Fernandez who is a small business owner in Havana. Under the economic reforms she has been open to open a business making baby clothes and guayaberas. This is the woman that used to work for the Cuban government. She now has been able to travel to America because of the reforms. She’s been able to go to Miami and buy materials that she needs, bring them back to Cuba and make these baby clothes. She has been able to save enough money to buy a new home for her two children and husband to live in. That is a world away from the one room home that she used to have. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Cuba so we have an opportunity here in America to continue to empower those entrepreneurs and small business people.
Doesn’t removing travel restrictions or dropping the embargo remove U.S. pressure on Cuba for change, including reparations?
Sen. Flake: We have gone 50 years without having leverage with full-out embargoed travel ban. Only now will we have some leverage. On my first visit to Cuba in 2001 when I met with the foreign minister, I said, “I'm going to go back and we're going to try to lift the travel ban. And if you don't improve your human rights situation we're going to lift the whole embargo.” That's how I felt. Republican and Democratic administrations [have said they] will only take measures commensurate with what the Cubans do in response. Lifting the travel ban is simply removing a sanction on Americans not Cubans. We shouldn't expect something in return from the Cubans for allowing Americans to travel freely. But we do know that that will improve the human rights condition and the quality of life for Cubans. We've seen that in spades in the last five years with Cuban-American travel and investment with relatives. It's a much better situation. I just reject the premise that we ought to demand something for removing sanctions on Americans.
Rep. Castor: I've been pleasantly surprised that the U.S. State Department and the Cuban government are saying settlement of outstanding claims and reparations are on the table and we're going to set up a process to work through those. Frankly, I'm surprised by that because I thought that would be too difficult to tackle.