Washington – Americans sunning on Cuban beaches and selling farm products without restrictions to the Cuban government – would such unfettered Cuba travel and trade boost prospects for freedom in Cuba or simply enrich a regime that imprisons its own people?
That perennial question has returned to the chambers of the US Congress, with a bill that would end the US travel ban on Cuba and lift restrictions on exports of agricultural products.
On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee wrangled over the legislation, finally voting 25 to 20 to recommend it to the full House. The divided vote reflected some members’ suspicion that the Agriculture Committee – which largely favored the farm-trade aspects of the bill – was being used by travel-rights advocates to get the lifting of the travel ban to the House floor.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee may also consider the legislation before it moves to the floor.
The Agriculture Committee’s close vote appears to portend rough days ahead for the bill, even though proponents of liberalizing US exchange with Cuba thought this was the best opportunity in years to chip away at the US embargo on Cuba.
Indeed, while Cuba may have receded from its privileged place among US foreign-policy preoccupations in recent years, anything related to the island dictatorship can still be counted on to raise emotions in Congress. One need look no further than a statement released Wednesday by Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, in which the son of Cuban immigrants promises to filibuster any move to pass the bill in the Senate.
For good measure, Senator Menendez accuses American agribusiness of “only car[ing] about padding their profits by opening up a new market.” And he accuses the travel industry of happily “enriching the Castro regime, simply because Cuba offers white sand beaches 90 miles from our coast.”
US farmers are already allowed to sell to Cuba, but only via transactions in which Cuba pays in advance and through a third-country bank. The legislation would scuttle those requirements.
Pro-trade and free-travel advocates have pushed for lifting the farm-trade and travel embargoes before, but it may be an issue whose time has come, US-Cuba analysts say – in part because Cuba doesn’t raise the emotional fervor it once did. Another reason is that the Cuban-American lobby is no longer monolithic, with younger Cuban-Americans especially willing to consider something other than the isolationist doctrine of their elders.
Sensing the shift, pro-business and pro-trade groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, have lined up behind the legislation.
“Enabling Americans to travel to Cuba and expand already legal export operations is an important first step to reforming US policy toward Cuba,” said Bruce Josten, a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce, in a letter Tuesday to members of Congress.
In a letter to the House Agriculture Committee, the Washington-based National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) and USA*Engage, a consortium of small-business and trade-advocacy groups opposing US trade restrictions, said this was likely to be a rare opportunity for members of Congress “to vote to liberalize trade and encourage US engagement in the world.”
But trade-embargo supporters counter that liberalizing trade with Cuba simply makes life easier for a regime that “denies its own people basic human rights,” as Menendez says.
International human rights organizations continue to condemn the Cuban regime for limiting a wide range of basic rights and for imprisoning dozens of political dissidents and rights advocates.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International issued a report charging the regime of Raúl Castro, brother of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, with fostering a “climate of fear” among political dissidents. The report branded the regime with having 53 “prisoners of conscience,” although the dissident Cuban Commission on Human Rights says the number of political prisoners runs closer to 190.
In the United States, both advocates and detractors of trade and travel liberalization with Cuba tend to agree that Cuba is a violator of the rights of its own citizens. Where they differ, however, is over the impact that liberalization – particularly on the part of the US – can have.
Trade-embargo opponents say the nearly five decades of US trade restrictions have done little to sway the regime from its communist path, while the arrival of American tourists and American goods could influence the Cuban people to demand change from their own government.
But advocates of maintaining the embargo say the Europeans and Canadians in particular have already tried the free-trade-will bring-change route, coming up empty.
As Menendez said in his shot across the bow of the current legislation, “The rest of the world travels to and invests in Cuba, none of which has brought democratic change.”