Jeff Flake sees an opening in Cuba.
The Republican senator from Arizona, a longtime critic of U.S. trade and travel restrictions on the island, is hopeful that the Trump administration is willing to compromise when it comes to writing out the rules that will comprise Trump’s Cuba policy directive announced in Miami last month.
“This is an area where Marco Rubio and I agree on,” Flake said. “We’ve had broad disagreements with policy on Cuba, but we want to make sure that American travel serves a purpose and that it empowers entrepreneurs. I think what we’ve all recognized no matter where we are on the policy is that over the past couple of years a lot more Cubans have enjoyed a lot more freedom because of American travel.”
Flake was on hand for an announcement on Tuesday by Engage Cuba and the Center of Democracy in the Americas outlining a number of policy recommendations as the White House figures out the nuts and bolts of the Cuba policy announced in June.
Their recommendations include allowing individual people-to-people travel, lifting restrictions on remittances and lifting limitations on bank transactions for Cubans who open U.S. bank accounts.
“Ever since the speech by President Trump we’ve seen a lot of cancellations in our reservations by American travelers. The Americans are scared to come to Cuba,” said Julio Alvarez, co-founder of a restoration garage for classic American automobiles in Havana. “It’s affecting my ability to come to the U.S. to get parts for my cars. I’m not allowed to have a bank account here. This affects my business greatly.”
The entrepreneurs also sent a letter to the departments of State, Treasury and Commerce outlining their recommendations.
“The vast majority of U.S. individual travelers frequent private lodging, restaurants and transportation services,” the letter said. “Fewer travelers will have a direct negative impact on businesses in the hospitality sector as well as an indirect negative impact on connected enterprises.”
Flake was joined by Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, two longtime proponents of ending the Cuban embargo.
“Our government now criticizes that new opening,” Leahy said, after he warmly embraced some of the entrepreneurs on hand and showed them pictures of the view from his home in Vermont. “They say the only Cubans who benefited were Raúl Castro and the Cuban ministry. Well, the Cuban government has benefited, that’s unavoidable in any country where there’s state-owned enterprises. There’s a whole lot of countries like that; China Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, we have no restrictions on travel there.”
James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, said the recommendations announced Tuesday should appeal to politicians like Rubio who have made it clear their intention is to hurt the sprawling Cuban military apparatus and help private citizens engage in free enterprise.
“Senator Rubio since the announcement has been very active in publicly pushing... that this is not against the private sector,” Williams said. “He’s going out of his way to say how much he’s supporting it so we would hope that there should be common agreement.”
Williams added that their recommendations represent the best chance of a compromise between Cuba hardliners and anti-embargo politicians, as they do not address ending the embargo or allowing tourism on the island.
“If we can’t find agreement on this, I don’t think we can find an agreement on anything,” Williams said. “I’m sort of less optimistic about Congressman [Mario] Diaz-Balart than I am about Senator Rubio.”
Diaz-Balart and Rubio worked closely with the Trump administration to draft the new policy directive that rolled back portions of Barack Obama’s policies in Cuba. The Republican pair argued that additional restrictions on business and tourism will stymie cash flow to the Cuban government and pressure communist leaders to let the private sector grow.
“It is my hope that in five to 10 years — or less — Cuba will look very different, and people will point to this as the moment that kind of triggered those changes,” Rubio said in June after the policy directive was released.
Flake said that he and Rubio met with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the State Department since the policy directive was announced and that the conversations between the two senators with different philosophies toward the island has been productive.
“We have a policy directive, but it has to be written into regs,” Flake said. “That takes time and that’s extremely important.”
Flake also introduced legislation earlier this year that would eliminate travel restrictions to Cuba for American citizens, and he garnered 54 other co-sponsors, including Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, for his bill. Flake said Tuesday that a bill lifting the embargo would get close to 70 votes in the Senate, but that Republican leadership likely won’t put the measure up for a floor vote.
“We’re going to be looking for vehicles,” Flake said, adding that anti-embargo senators could add the provision into government funding bills in the coming months. “It’s going to be difficult to motivate them to put it on the floor but to the extent it could be attached to anything, even if it’s a vote that won’t move the policy, it will show people where the Senate is.”
Flake said 70 votes on any piece of legislation related to Cuba, even if symbolic, would send a strong message to Trump.
Williams said the only reason Republican leaders in Congress haven’t moved forward on the issue is because a small minority of members are very vocal in rolling back some of Obama’s policies.
“The policy should reflect the will of Congress and the American people,” Williams said, adding that 75 percent of the American people want to end the embargo. “We can get 70 votes in the Senate and yet we can’t get a vote. That’s crazy to people.”