A group of New Jersey political and business leaders will push for statewide support to lift trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.
New Jersey will become the 19th state to join Engage Cuba, a Washington-based lobbying group that advocates pro-engagement policies on the federal level.
“Removing trade restrictions on Cuba could bring new opportunities to New Jersey’s top export industries while creating jobs across the state,” said Engage Cuba president James Williams. “At a time when New Jersey is facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall and certain industries fall victim to trade disputes, opening up new markets is the key to strengthening New Jersey’s economy.”
The bipartisan state council includes State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver), Assembly Speaker Pro-Tempore Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood), Trenton mayor Reed Gusciora, and Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey president Anthony Russo.
“Many of us in New Jersey have close ties with the Cuban people, and we should foster that connection. Both countries have so much to offer each other,” said Johnson, an early supporter of President Obama’s diplomatic rapprochement plan. “We cannot allow the economic and social isolation of the Cuban people to prevent us from continuing to advocate for our interests in Cuba—like the return of Joanne Chesimard.”
Chesimard, a member of the Black Liberation Army, murdered New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. She escaped from prison in 1979 and was granted political asylum in Cuba. Cuba has turned down attempts to extradite her. Now 71, she lives there under the name Assata Shakur.
The issue of normalizing relations with Cuba in the post-Fidel Castro era has created friction in New Jersey, which has the third-highest Cuban-American population in the U.S.
In 2016, then-Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who fled Cuba when he was ten, condemned ten New Jersey legislators, including Johnson, Gusciora and now-Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver for traveling to Cuba.
U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he disagrees with the decision of elected officials from both parties to join the Engage Cuba effort.
“Just weeks after the Cuban regime approved a new constitution designed to keep the Communist Party in power for the foreseeable future, it seems like a fool’s errand for Engage Cuba to set up a New Jersey chapter,” said Menendez. “Having followed Cuba closely for decades, I find it frustrating to have to continuously remind folks of America’s role as a champion for human rights, and to continue cautioning against throwing an economic lifeline to a longstanding dictatorship.”
O’Scanlon said that restrictions on trade with Cuba is a burden on U.S. business owners.
“The business community in New Jersey should be free to meet demand in foreign markets and truly compete in the global marketplace,” said O’Scanlon. “From biotechnology, to agriculture, to manufacturing, New Jersey products have the potential to change lives in Cuba and create jobs across our state.”
O’Scanlon is joined on the Engage Cuba state council by two other Monmouth County legislators, Eric Houghtaling (D-Freehold) and Serena DiMaso (R-Holmdel). Former State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) is also part of the group.
Gusciora described the U.S. trade embargo as failed and said it bars the Cuban people from accessing American made products.
“While we should continue to put pressure on Cuba for its human rights abuses, we need to do so through diplomacy and commercial engagement, not isolation,” Gusciora said. The majority of Americans want to try a new approach. It’s time to acknowledge that we are stuck in a Cold War mindset.”
Engage Cuba cited a 2014 poll conducted by the non-partisan Atlantic Council showing nearly 70% of New Jerseyans support the U.S. engaging more directly with Cuba.
Menendez said the embargo ought to continue until Cuba is free of their current regime.
“The Cuban people, like those struggling for democracy in Venezuela, yearn for the opportunity to control their destinies and provide a vibrant future for their children,” said Menendez. “But the fact is, unless the regime is compelled to change the way they govern the island and the way they exploit its people, the status quo will endure.
Despite opposition from Menendez and Gov. Chris Christie, there are now daily flights between Newark Liberty International Airport and Havana.
Russo said that lifting trade restrictions with Cuba “has the potential to be a significant boon to New Jersey industries, helping businesses succeed across sectors and across the state.”
“We need to give New Jersey business owners — the backbone of our economy — the freedom to thrive and bring free market principles to Cuba,” Russo argued. “It’s wrong to burden New Jersey business with restrictions that none of their international competitors face.”
New Jersey has the third-largest container port in the U.S., something Engage Cuba maintains would aid New Jersey’s shipping, manufacturing and agricultural industries.
Other members of the new Engage Cuba state council include: Assemblymen John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro), Anthony Verrelli (D-Hopewell), Joe Danielson (D-Franklin), Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton), Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough), and Robert Karabinchak (D-Edison); Assemblywomen Carol Murphy (D-Mount Laurel), Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Trenton), Nancy Pinkin (D-East Brunswick) and Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City); Edison Democratic municipal chairman Shariq Ahmad, a former Menendez staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; New Jersey African American Chamber of Commerce CEO John Harmon; Trenton city councilman Jerrell Blakley; former Trenton mayor Douglas Palmer; Carteret mayor Daniel Reiman; Middletown mayor Tony Perry; Ewing mayor Bert Steinman; Monmouth County freeholder Tom Arnone; and Stephanie Macias-Arlington, the executive director of the Seton Hall University Joseph A. Unanue Latino Institute
“New Jersey, with its rich history and vibrant Cuban-American community, should continue leading the way in sending a clear message to the world and to the Cuban people that the United States will never give up on our commitment to a free and democratic Cuba,” Menendez said.