By: Sergio Alejandro Gómez
The debate over Cuba is gaining strength in the U.S. Congress, despite that fact that a year and a half after President Barack Obama called for lifting the blockade, no concrete steps have been taken.
Last week, as part of the 2017 Financial Services and General Government Bill, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved four amendments to remove restrictions on travel to Cuba; authorize private loans for the sale of agricultural products to the island; expand exports of equipment and telecommunications services; and allow airplanes from third countries flying to or from Cuba to refuel in the Bangor International Airport, in the state of Maine.
Its common practice within the U.S. Congress to include specific provisions within other more important bills, especially those which fund government budgets. These amendments, however, have a long and difficult journey ahead of them.
In the best case scenario, following its approval by the Committee, a bill should be voted on in a Senate plenary session, and subsequently reviewed by the House of Representatives Conference Committee. Then, the new version will once again be submitted to consultation and approval by both Houses before being sent to be signed by the President.
But recently this has not been the case. With the increasing polarization in Congress between the Democratic administration and Republican majority, a common battle field is that of budget bills, which end up receiving last-minute approval through an omnibus bill.
All experts consulted by Granma agree that although initiatives to improve relations with Cuba have little chance of survival, this doesn’t in any way detract from the significance of growing bipartisan support for rapprochement between the two countries.
A TRICKY PATH
Professor of Government at the American University,William M. LeoGrande, notes that the House of Representatives version of the 2017 spending bill will almost certainly not include amendments similar to those made by the Senate, but rather provisions to block advances being made in regards to Cuba-U.S. relations, as happened last year.
According to LeoGrande, if the bill manages to get approval from both Houses, it would then be reviewed by a committee which would rectify any differences which might exist in the respective versions.
Thus the future of initiatives related to Cuba is difficult to predict, notes the U.S. professor.
“If they both contain contradictory amendments, all of these will likely be removed. However, if the amendments in the Senate version remain and the House of Representatives one doesn’t contain any, this could open the way to the creation of a final version.”
As it stands, he notes, if the 2017 spending bill stalls in any of the two Houses – with the end of the tax year just around the corner – the amendments would be placed in a “bus” to keep the government functioning. “When things like this happen, problematic issues such as Cuba are usually set aside in order to reach an agreement.”
U.S. attorney and Cuba expert, Robert Muse, agrees with LeoGrande’s analysis, but highlights the support of senior figures in the Republican party to an amendment in favor of authorizing private loans for the sale of agricultural products to the island, proposed by John Boozman (R-Arkansas), and Jon Tester (D-Montana). The bill was approved by an eight to 22 vote, which also saw Committee on Appropriations Chairman, Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) vote in favor.
One of the sectors pushing for policy change toward Cuba is the United States’ powerful agriculture industry. Ironically, the sector which has been leading this struggle is also the most limited in this new scenario, due for example to a law which demands Cuba pay in advance, in cash, for all food products purchased from the U.S.
According to Muse, the proposed amendment aiming to change this situation has a “chance of surviving,” in the debates in the House of Representatives.
In any case, the U.S. attorney believes that the remaining bills, specifically that seeking to eliminate restrictions on travel to Cuba, could potentially be used as leverage to quell attempts by those opposed to improving relations.
The Senate’s 2017 Financial Services and General Government Bill already includes two amendments which would negatively impact the rapprochement process, and which if approved, will block cooperation between the two countries on all issues linked to security, or the return of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo Naval Base.
Other negative measures included in spending bills for different federal agencies are being proposed in the House of Representatives; something which also happened last year, with none receiving approval on that occasion. Those opposed to rapprochement were unable to block executive measures adopted by the President toward this end. Draft bills submitted by legislators in favor of expanding ties with the island also failed to advance.
Beyond amendments, various independent bills regarding Cuba - seeking to remove restrictions on travel to the island, permit the granting of credits and investments in the agriculture sector and lift trade restrictions - are currently making their way through Congress.
Senator Jeff Flake, (R–Arizona) and Patrick Leahy (D–Vermont) are attempting to push through a bill which would allow U.S. citizens to freely travel to Cuba and already has a simple majority in the 100 seat-chamber. However, the two Senators are hoping to attain a total of 60 votes in order to avoid any possible difficulties if the bill reaches the Senate plenary.
The greatest obstacle, however, continues to be the House of Representatives. A similar bill proposed by Mark Sanford, (R-South Carolina), has so far achieved 129 co-sponsors (109 of which are Democrats) in a 435 member-chamber dominated by Republicans.
WHAT CHANGE LOOKS LIKE
Although President Obama has broad executive powers to continue gutting the blockade, since the Helms-Burton Act was passed in 1966, it is only Congress that can definitely end the policy.
Experts agree that the current U.S. Congress is one of the most polarized and dysfunctional in the country’s history. However, many observers remain optimistic in regards to the issue of Cuba.
“More and more, members of Congress are realizing how unfair it is to deny Americans the right to freely travel to Cuba and to block American farmers and companies from doing business there,” noted Steven Law, former chief of staff to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and current senior advisor to pro-normalization group Engage Cuba.
Law described the approval of the four amendments by the Committee on Appropriations as proof “there is growing bipartisan support for changing our obsolete policy toward Cuba…this is what historic change looks like,” he added.
A recent poll by CBS suggests that 81% of U.S. citizens are in favor of lifting travel restrictions to the island (including some 71% of Republicans). According to the Pew Research Center, support to expand trade with Cuba is growing most rapidly among Republicans.
So, the question is, will these voices be heard in Washington...