Bid to Ease Cuba's Sanctions Turns to Texas

The Texas Tribune
By: Julián Aguilar

Despite last year's announcement that the Obama administration would ease sanctions against the Castro regime, supporters of ending the embargo say that progress has been slow and that Texas is losing out.

Now, a Washington-based group is setting up shop in Texas to persuade lawmakers — and the people who help usher them into office — to change their tone on U.S.-Cuba relations and help the two nations work more closely. And as they tout the financial benefits of ending the embargo, Texas lawmakers are open to a conversation on the issue but have serious reservations.

"How do we get local business and local leaders talking about this and making it clear to their representatives [that ending the embargo] is something they support – and something they hope and expect their elected officials to represent them on," said James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba, a coalition whose members include Steven Law, the former deputy secretary of labor in the Bush administration and a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The group also partners with trade groups like the National Foreign Trade Council and the Council of the Americas to convince lawmakers and business groups that foreign-policy changes in Cuba could be a boon for the U.S. economy.

In addition to ending the embargo, the group is also lobbying for a reversal of the current travel ban to Cuba. Williams announced last month the group was expanding its efforts to Texas, which he said was “key” to their mission.

“We’re targeting key states that have to gain economically from an opening with Cuba. They have either a historical or cultural reason to be engaged in the debate,” he said. Engage Cuba will also have a presence in Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Iowa and Ohio.

Though trade between Texas and Cuba has fallen off in recent years, both governments have profited from provisions of the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform Act, which allows some U.S. companies and shippers to trade with Cuba.

But new policies could expand those trade opportunities, specifically in the area of agricultural exports.

Williams said the challenge is getting people to change their tune after more than 50 years of a policy that was considered normal.

“In reality, most didn’t have to think about engaging in this issue in a serious way,” he said.

Pending legislation on Cuba includes H.R. 3687, or the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, which is co-sponsored by Republican U.S. Reps. Michael Conaway of Midland and Ted Poe of Humble. The legislation proposes to ease restrictions in the financing of exports to Cuba.

But if the process is moving too slowly for opponents of the 54-year old embargo, blame the president, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.

“If the president had worked with Congress on a bipartisan basis to address his concerns about the relationship between the United States and Cuba, I think that would be a constructive conversation to have,” Cornyn, the Senate majority whip, told reporters Wednesday during a conference call. “But by acting unilaterally, I think he has made that more challenging.”

Cornyn’s remarks came as the Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker was in Havana visiting with Cuban officials and discussing trade and travel policies. Despite her Cabinet-member status, the embargo doesn’t allow for Pritzker to promote American exports, which Williams called “absurd.”

Cornyn said he is still considering all the options on Cuba but cited lingering concerns over issues his colleagues have raised, citing a floor speech Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-N.J., a staunch opponent of President Obama’s policies toward Cuba. Menendez said Wednesday that the Cuban government, and not the Cuban people, has been the main beneficiary of the 2000 law that made some trade legal.

“Over $5 billion in U.S. agricultural and medical products have been sold to Cuba. It is an unpleasant fact, however, that all those sales by more than 250 privately owned U.S. companies were made to only one Cuban buyer: the Castro regime,” he said, according to a transcript of his floor remarks.

When Obama announced the change in December, the White House said the embargo has failed to create a"democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba."

Cornyn said allegations of human rights abuses and suppression of the press are still common.

“I am not sure whether we are sending all the right signals in dealing with the regime there,” he said. “I am watching and listening, but I haven’t reached a conclusion yet.”

Williams said he wasn’t surprised at Menendez’s remarks because he and others have lobbed the same criticism for years. But he added that the commerce secretary’s trip this week signals Obama is intent on fostering as much change as he can before he leaves office.

“The United States government is taking this very seriously,” he said.

Williams added that he appreciated Cornyn taking a "fresh" look at the policy toward Cuba.

"As a pro-freedom, pro-business Senator, we hope he will want to support Texas farmers and businesses and stop the federal government from telling U.S. citizens where they can and cannot travel," he said.