A group of New Jersey political and business have banded together to lobby Congress to end the decades-long Cuban embargo.
The Engage Cuba New Jersey State Council is the 19th state organization to join the national effort led by the Washington-based advocacy group.
It comes at a time when President Donald Trump has rolled back President Barack Obama’s efforts to establish normal relations with the Communist country. Earlier this month, the State Department ended a five-year tourist visa for Cubans, allowing them to make multiple trips to the U.S., granting instead only single-entry visas for up to three months.
New Jersey is home to 44,974 Cuban Americans, behind only Florida and Texas, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
“As long as we maintain restrictions on trade with Cuba, we burden American business owners,” said state Senator Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, one of 29 founding members of the state council. “The business community in New Jersey should be free to meet demand in foreign markets and truly compete in the global marketplace. From biotechnology, to agriculture, to manufacturing, New Jersey products have the potential to change lives in Cuba and create jobs across our state."
Their efforts face opposition from New Jersey’s two Cuban-American lawmakers in Washington, who also disagreed with Obama’s overtures to Havana.
“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 an New Jersey chapter," said U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
“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.”
And Rep. Albio Sires, D-8th Dist., called the effort “all about the almighty dollar,” saying that when Obama tried to engage Cuba, the government doubled down on its efforts to quash opposition.
“If you want to talk about giving something to Cuba, Cuba has to give something back, which they did not do with Obama," Sires said. "If there is dissent, they beat them up they put them in jail and they abuse them.”
One obstacle in New Jersey, however, is the continued presence in Cuba of Joanne Chesimard. who is on FBI’s list of the most wanted terrorists. Chesimard has lived there since 1984 after escaping from prison after being sentenced to life imprisonment in the killing of state Police Trooper Werner Foerster in a 1973 shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Trump mentioned Chesimard by name in his Cuba speech in June 2017 announcing changes to U.S. policy.
A member of the new council, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen, said the U.S. could be in a better position to push for Chesimard’s extradition.
“Many of us in New Jersey have close ties with the Cuban people, and we should foster that connection." Johnson said. "Both countries have so much to offer each other. 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.”
Others on the council include Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora; John Harmon, chief executive of the New Jersey African American Chamber of Commerce; and Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.