Lawmakers Warming to Cuba Reset

CQ Roll CAll

By: Rachel Oswald

Seven months after President Barack Obama announced his intention to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, congressional resistance has begun to recede with more and more lawmakers visiting the Caribbean nation and signing on to a bill to lift travel restrictions.

Since Obama declared the policy change in December, seven congressional delegations have visited Havana, including another group last week, according to Engage Cuba, which advocates for lifting the trade embargo. Meanwhile, a bill to end the travel ban has picked up dozens of additional co-sponsors since being introduced by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in January.

Though there is bipartisan support for expanded engagement, Democrats are calling for it with a louder voice, among them Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Member Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and Senate Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Ranking Member Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. The two men were part of a congressional delegation to the island nation last weekend.

Responding to the president’s announcement that a U.S. embassy would open in Havana later this month, Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois predicted “the power of new ideas and the force of an open economy and an open society will succeed.”

Durbin, who traveled to Cuba in January, is a co-sponsor of Flake’s bill (S 299) to end the travel ban, which has 44 co-sponsors and is just one vote short of having the backing of a majority of the Foreign Relations Committee. If a markup of the bill is scheduled, it is likely to face heated opposition from avowed anti-Castro panel members Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Other bills that would seek to expand economic ties with Cuba face a much tougher climb in Congress. Legislation (S 1543) from Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would lift the trade embargo has netted two co-sponsors since being introduced in June. And another measure (S 491) filed in February by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to end commerce restrictions has 16 co-sponsors.

“The travel ban is the lowest hanging fruit,” said Luke Albee, a senior adviser with Engage Cuba and former chief of staff for Democratic senators Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Mark Warner of Virginia. “It just strikes people as wrong that we are able to travel anywhere in the world, including North Korea, but we can’t travel without special dispensation to Cuba.”

Two-thirds of Americans also support ending the trade ban, according to the 2015 Chicago Council Survey, which polled more than 2,000 people for several weeks in May and June.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which supports keeping the embargo in place, minimized the implications of having a U.S. embassy in Havana.

“At the end of the day, they’re changing the sign on the door,” Claver-Carone said. “It’s easy to change the nameplate. The tough part is going to be getting the funding for continuing operations.”

Language in the House version of the State-Foreign Operations fiscal 2016 spending bill (HR 2772) would deny the State Department from using any appropriated funds to open an embassy.

The facility space in Havana currently housing the U.S. interests section is anticipated to be converted into an embassy before the current fiscal year is over, which should limit the ability of lawmakers opposed to the diplomatic reset to forbid Foggy Bottom from using appropriated funds for the project.

Menendez blasted the decision to exchange ambassadors with Havana, saying: “Our demands for freedoms and liberty on the island will continue to be ignored and we are incentivizing a police state to uphold a policy of brutality.”

Added Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., one of the most prominent anti-Castro lawmakers on Capitol Hill: “If a Cuban embassy opens in Washington, it will not represent the Cuban people. It will represent the Cuban intelligence services that perpetuate human rights abuses against the Cuban people.”

Congress was officially notified on Wednesday that diplomatic ties would be restored. There is now a 15-day notification period that has to expire but a senior State Department official in a call with reporters said actual diplomatic relations would not be re-established until July 20.

Alana Tummino, head of the Cuba Working Group at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, said support for denying funding for U.S. diplomatic activities in Cuba “is really tied up in the hands of a small but vocal minority of hardliners.”

“Little by little, you are seeing that there is momentum in Congress” to re-engage with Cuba, she said.