Engage Cuba Coalition bringing effort to lift embargo and travel ban to Louisiana

Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

By: David Jacobs

The Engage Cuba Coalition, which supports lifting the U.S. trade embargo and travel ban on its island neighbor, is bringing its advocacy to Louisiana.

The bipartisan group launched earlier this year but has so far focused on lobbying Congress. Now the coalition wants to help local constituents who support better relations with Cuba express that message to their communities and their political representatives.

“We’re really introducing ourselves to the people who have been active on this issue in Louisiana,” says coalition President James Williams. “We’re hoping to be a focal point to leverage and raise those voices.”

Engage Cuba says its state campaigns will consist of in-state events, local media outreach, polling and targeted advertising campaigns. Those efforts will begin in Louisiana, Georgia, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Ohio before expanding to other states, the coalition says. Williams says Louisiana was chosen as one of the first states because of its historical economic and cultural ties to Cuba, and because it would be among the top beneficiaries of increased trade with Cuba.

For the next month or so, the group expects to keep a relatively low public profile. Public events likely will follow in the near future, although the coalition isn’t ready to announce any yet. It may bring Cuban officials to Louisiana, and it may also bring Louisiana civic and business leaders to Cuba, Williams says.

Polls indicate broad support for normalizing relations with Cuba among Democrats and Republicans, although Americans in the latter group are more likely to be skeptical. Engage Cuba emphasizes the bipartisan nature of its cause.

While Williams has raised money for progressive groups and worked for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, Steven Law, a senior adviser for Engage Cuba, is president of the Republican super PAC American Crossroads. A long list of individuals and organizations that support changing U.S. policy toward Cuba on the coalition’s website include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell, and Pope Francis.

Williams acknowledges that many prominent national Republicans oppose lifting the trade and travel bans, and that President Barack Obama’s support for reform makes it hard for Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination to follow suit. When Obama in December announced his hope to normalize relations with Cuba, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal bashed the move in a prepared statement that did not mention Louisiana.

“This is just one more sign that shows the president has no strategy for leading on an international stage,” Jindal said. “His policy of appeasement toward Cuba and other threats is endangering national security and the American people.”

Still, Williams notes that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump supports rapprochement with Cuba, as does U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

“I think [Republican] Sen. [Jeff] Flake from Arizona says it very well,” Williams says. “It’s not appeasement to remove a denial of rights to Americans. … This isn’t telling people they have to go to Cuba. This is giving people the freedom to make their own choice.”