In Congress, a new push seeks to end stalemate over Cuba embargo
In Congress, a new push seeks to end stalemate over Cuba embargo
LINDSAY WISE AND CHRIS ADAMS
McClatchy Washington Bureau
With efforts to lift the Cuban embargo stalled in Congress, a pro-trade
senator from Kansas will try to break the stalemate on Thursday by
offering new legislation designed to win over his reluctant Republican
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, along with co-sponsor Angus King, an
independent senator from Maine, hope that taxpayer protections included
in their bill to end the embargo will give it a better chance of passing
the GOP-controlled Senate than a version introduced earlier this year by
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
“I’m very aware of Sen. Klobuchar’s bill,” Moran said Wednesday. “My
view is that the goal is to accomplish something very similar. This does
it in a fashion that is much more likely to be acceptable to Congress,
to the American people and much more likely to become law, and does it
in a way that protects taxpayers.”
King said he and Moran carefully drafted the legislation “to be a bill
that could get bipartisan support and actually have a chance at passage.”
But the odds that this latest proposal – or any legislation to undo the
embargo or ease travel restrictions – will get through Congress this
year is slim, say Cuba experts.
The bill is likely to run into strong resistance from a broad
cross-section of Republicans – and particularly from the Cuban-American
delegation from South Florida, where opposition to Cuba’s Castro regime
has long been a defining characteristic.
“I think it’s hard for either side to get a Cuba bill through – to roll
back what the president did, or to lift the embargo,” said Phil Peters
of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va.
Pro-trade forces have made some inroads in advocating for their
position. And pro-travel forces might even have majority support in the
Senate. Still, getting such legislation through both sides of Congress
will be extremely difficult. And if it doesn’t happen this year, it’ll
be even tougher in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign.
The embargo on trade with Cuba was imposed more than 50 years ago and
later codified by Congress. Only Congress can lift it.
Klobuchar introduced a bill in February to do just that, not long after
President Barack Obama announced that he’d move to normalize relations
with the communist nation. The Klobuchar bill, the Freedom to Export to
Cuba Act, would remove all legal barriers to trade with Cuba but would
preserve parts of the law intended to protect human rights and private
Although three Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors to Klobuchar’s
bill – Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jeff Flake
of Arizona – it has yet to garner broad Republican support.
Similar bills filed in the House of Representatives also have had
trouble making headway.
The new bill to be introduced Thursday by Moran and King is called the
Cuba Trade Act. It seeks to assuage the concerns of lawmakers who balked
at the idea of using federal funds to underwrite trade with Cuba.
“What this bill does is take away one of the unnecessary criticisms of
dealing with Cuba, which is you’re just going to allow U.S. taxpayers to
fund the sale of agriculture products, commodities to Cuba,” Moran said.
“What we’re saying is if the market is there, if Cuba can acquire the
necessary financing, that’s a great development for American business
and for American agriculture,” he said, “but the criticism that we’re
subsidizing those sales disappears in our legislation.”
Like Klobuchar’s bill, the Cuba Trade Act would permit private-sector
industries in the United States to export goods and services to Cuba.
But it includes additional language to ensure that U.S. taxpayers
wouldn’t be on the hook if the Cubans default on lines of credit
extended by U.S. banks and businesses.
Another provision emphasizes that private funds – rather than taxpayer
dollars – would be used to promote trade and develop markets in Cuba.
And the bill would preserve an existing ban on U.S. government-backed
credit and foreign aid to Cuba, including restrictions on the use of
federal funds to finance trade with the communist island through the
Export Credit Guarantee Program or the Export-Import Bank.
Whether these provisions will be enough to give the bill the boost it
needs to pass both Houses of Congress is unclear. For now, Cuba
legislation is at a standstill in both the House and the Senate – even
though there appears to be increasing public support for Obama’s
decision to normalize relations.
Asked by the Gallup organization whether they favor or oppose the U.S.
ending its trade embargo against Cuba, 59 percent of respondents in
February said they favored it – up from support of about 50 percent
during polls in the 2000s.
“I think the support is there,” King said. “I’ve met with
Cuban-Americans from Florida and it’s really somewhat a generational
issue. The younger generation who were born and raised in America are
much less passionate. There are going to be people who are just going to
be mad as hell and not want this to happen. But I think by and large the
public wants this to happen.”
Part of the holdup on bills to lift the embargo can be ascribed to
congressional politics. While Republicans control both chambers, the
Cuba issue doesn’t fall neatly along party lines. Farm-state Republicans
such as Moran have joined with Democrats to try to boost trade with
Cuba, even though the GOP in general has traditionally strongly
supported the embargo.
Moran is a longtime supporter of trade with Cuba, driven in part by the
eagerness of the ranchers and farmers in Kansas to ramp up U.S. exports
The agriculture industry in Kansas and across the country has been
lobbying hard to convince Congress to open Cuba to trade. More than 25
food and agricultural interests including Cargill, the National Chicken
Council and the National Turkey Federation formed a coalition in January
aimed at convincing Congress to scrap the embargo and open up the island
to increased investment with the United States.
“When we’re not trading with Cuba, somebody else is,” Moran said. “Cuba
buys $150 million of wheat every year (from the European Union). They’re
buying it and they’re paying for it, they’re just not paying the United
States for it.”
King said he’s particularly troubled by increasing trade between China
“I would rather have Cuba have us be their principle trading partner
rather than having the Chinese have a significant foothold 90 miles off
the shore of Florida,” he said.
On the other side, Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a 2016
presidential candidate, has marshaled forces into a camp dedicated to
seeing the embargo hold. He has also laid down a set of conditions that
need to be met before he will support any U.S. ambassador to Cuba,
another part of the White House’s agenda.
The conditions, laid out in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry
last week, will be tough to meet; even as a solo senator, Rubio has the
ability to stymie any nominee.
And neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., nor House
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have shown much interest in gumming up the
congressional calendar with Cuba legislation.
“With all of that, generally the status quo wins out,” said John S.
Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc.
One possible intermediate victory for the pro-trade lawmakers might be
to ease restrictions on credit sales of products that are exempted from
the embargo, even if the overall embargo remains in effect. Removing the
cash-only payment for food and health care items would allow Cuba to buy
American products on credit.
Such a bill, with its smaller scope, might have a more realistic chance
of passing. But that’s far from certain as well.
“It’s not the silver bullet – but for their side it would be a victory
and a further erosion of the sanctions,” said Jason I. Poblete, a former
Republican congressional staffer who’s an international regulatory
lawyer with Poblete Tamargo LLP.
As for the ongoing debate, Poblete said, “I’ve been watching this for
20-plus years, and it looks like more of the same – great for sound
bites, great for politics, but it doesn’t move product.”
Moran said he’s well aware of the obstacles.
“This issue is particularly fraught with lots of politics and personal
experience,” Moran said.
“Cuban-Americans who emigrated from Cuba to the United States have
strong feelings on both sides of this issue, so I don’t think anything
is easy about it,” he said. “But this is – in my time in dealing with
this topic – probably the best opportunity we’ve had.”
Source: In Congress, a new push seeks to end stalemate over Cuba embargo
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