Why is Minnesota’s congressional delegation so focused on Cuba?
Why is Minnesota’s congressional delegation so focused on Cuba?
By Sam Brodey | 06/22/15
Ever since the thaw in relations that began late last year, Minnesota’s
representatives in Congress have been especially focused on Cuba policy.
WASHINGTON — Since the thaw in relations that followed an unexpected
prisoner swap late last year, Minnesota’s members of Congress have
wasted no time diving into the relatively uncharted waters of U.S.-Cuba
diplomacy. In the House and Senate, Minnesota legislators have
introduced bills, traveled to the island, and — in the case of Sen. Amy
Klobuchar — become at least minor celebrities among the Cuban people.
Klobuchar has been in the vanguard of congressional response to the
opening with Cuba. In February, she introduced the Freedom to Export to
Cuba Act, a bill that would essentially kill the half-century-old trade
embargo. She also co-sponsored Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Arizona) bill to end
the travel ban to the island, and in May, she successfully got federal
authorities to clear the Minnesota Orchestra’s travel from MSP Airport
to Havana. Earlier in the year, Klobuchar traveled to the island with a
congressional delegation, where Cubans recognized her face from news
reports about the embargo-ending bill.
Sen. Al Franken has also been active on the issue. He went to Cuba over
the Memorial Day recess as part of a congressional delegation. Speaking
about his trip, he said he got “a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for
the fact that it looks like we are going to be normalizing relations
The senators’ House colleagues share their interest in the island
nation. 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum traveled to Cuba last summer,
and said she saw “saw the tremendous opportunities that exist between
the people of our two countries to find common ground.”
8th District Rep. Rick Nolan has a Cuba connection that spans decades —
in 1977, during his first stint in Congress, Nolan visited the island as
part of a team that successfully negotiated the release of five U.S.
prisoners. In December, Nolan called the re-establishment of diplomatic
relations “a monumental step,” and plans to visit sometime this year.
Along with Reps. Keith Ellison and Collin Peterson, Nolan co-sponsored
the House version of Klobuchar’s bill ending the trade embargo.
On the Republican side, 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer has joined a small
but vocal segment of the party that has welcomed the White House’s
diplomatic push. The freshman lawmaker went to Cuba earlier in the year
as part of a congressional delegation, and says the trip convinced him
that the Cuban people are ready to do business with America. “Before the
trip, you can be academic about [the issue],” he said. “Once you see the
people, it’s not about leadership as much as it’s about people. They’re
hungry for the next step, hungry for access to the marketplace.”
At the same time, Emmer said that U.S. and Cuban leaders would have to
come to agreements about reparations for Cubans persecuted by the
government, as well as extradition of individuals in Cuba wanted in the
U.S. for crimes. “We can’t forget that this is personal for people,” he
said, referencing Democratic and Republican colleagues who deeply oppose
lifting the embargo. “This thing is going to evolve over time.”
If it seems unlikely that Minnesota would be a hotbed of action on Cuba
policy, well, that’s understandable. The state doesn’t have the usual
factors that animate other states’ activity on Cuba — like Florida,
whose large Cuban-American population holds strong views on the issue,
and whose business interests eagerly eye an untapped market just 90
miles away. Still, take a look at some of Minnesota’s most important
economic interests — and the priorities of its representatives in
Congress — and the Minnesota-Cuba connection begins to make sense.
Broadly speaking, there are three reasons why Minnesota legislators have
been so active on Cuba politics, according to Eric Schwartz, dean of the
Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. For
one, the export opportunities for two of Minnesota’s biggest industries
— agriculture and medical devices — are massive. For example,
Minnetonka-based Cargill has lobbied aggressively to open the Cuba
market. A company spokesperson called the embargo a “failed experiment”
that has robbed the U.S. of billions of dollars in exports.
Beyond that, Minnesota’s lack of a large Cuban-American community, and
its distance from the island, means lawmakers aren’t subject to the same
pressures as representatives from states like Florida and New Jersey.
Emmer says there’s a bit of history to the Minnesota-Cuba ties: when
limited agricultural trade was allowed a decade ago, Minnesota was “one
of the first to lend a hand,” he said. “Minnesota has an ongoing
relationship where others are just now starting.”
Still, it’s not like Iowans or Ohioans in Congress have been especially
vocal in supporting the Cuba shift. Schwartz’s theory? “I think a number
of our legislators in Minnesota happen to be reasonable people,” he
said. “This is an embargo that, if your goal is to promote change in
Cuba or promote U.S. exports, it’s hard to see how the embargo serves
either of those interests.”
That’s not to say the embargo doesn’t have its defenders in Congress.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley — who represents Iowa, the largest
agricultural exporter in the U.S. — came down sharply on the U.S.-Cuba
detente. Republican freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas harshly
condemned the Cuba developments, despite the fact that agricultural
interests in Arkansas — a leading U.S. rice producer — appear eager for
increased business with Cuba, one of the world’s top 20 rice consumers.
(However, his Arkansas colleague, Republican John Boozman, co-signed the
Senate bill lifting the travel ban.)
Klobuchar admitted she wouldn’t be able to convince all the Republican
skeptics to get on board with her bill. “I don’t think it’s going to be
unanimous,” she said, noting that perhaps 20 or so Republicans would
need to support it. She expressed optimism that some may join, noting
that Senate Agriculture Committee chair Pat Roberts, R-Kansas — who has
signaled at least some openness to lifting the embargo — traveled to
Cuba earlier this year.
Klobuchar said that during her visit, she was struck by how many
Minnesotans were there as part of agriculture and business delegations.
“Minnesotans have, in the last few decades, been international in reach
— many big companies selling things abroad, agricultural interests,
international adoption,” she said. “Cuba is part of this. They’re people
we’d like to get to know.”
Source: Why is Minnesota’s congressional delegation so focused on Cuba?
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