Three weeks into President Trump’s term, the debate over Cuba policy has yet to be joined.
Washington is immersed in an acid bath of partisanship.
The discussion about preserving engagement, diplomacy, travel, and trade with Cuba has been stilled by constitutional and foreign policy conflicts.
Cuba policy is being reviewed by the administration, under the radar – a review conducted by opponents of diplomatic relations with Cuba’s government (although, news bulletin, Elliot Abrams, the veteran Cold Warrior, who was interviewed by President Trump to be Deputy Secretary of State, will not be among them).
Have you ever had one of those catastrophic slips…which are actually over in an instant…but time slows down and you feel yourself falling…you know you’re going to hit the ground and there’s nothing you can do to stop it? That feeling of inevitability could easily pervade our outlook for action by the administration on Cuba.
Except – there are brave souls, public servants, kicking against the pull of political gravity, who see a way forward on Cuba. In these times, that makes them unique.
At a moment when some attach the adverb “extreme” to a participle like “vetting” to weaponize language, we could say these leaders are making progress by engaging in “extreme bipartisanship.”
They are going against the grain and building coalitions across party lines on one of the few issues that can bring legislators together: Cuba.
Leani García, writing for Americas Quarterly, calls Representatives Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina “The GOP Congressmen Who Could Sell Trump on Cuba.”
All are “vocal supporters of the new president,” and each has sponsored legislation aimed at “upending two pillars of the U.S.’ embargo on Cuba: travel and trade” – all bills with lengthening lists of bipartisan supporters.
Rep. Emmer, along with principal Democratic cosponsor Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, has sponsored legislation to lift the Cuba embargo, with support from eight Democrats and seven Republicans.
Rep. Sanford, author of the bill to legalize travel to Cuba for all Americans, has support from eight Republicans and four Democrats, including principal cosponsor Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
Rep. Crawford, author of legislation to boost agriculture sales to Cuba, has 22 Republican and 10 Democratic co-sponsors.
These leaders are also working to merge the policies in their legislation with the narratives that drive their involvement in politics. As Ms. Garciá says, Rep. Emmer promotes his campaign to lift the embargo by emphasizing “that free markets are a fundamental American value,” and that trade offers U.S. citizens a chance “to build and strengthen relationships with the Cuban people.”
Rep. Sanford’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017, as Americas Quarterly reported, is about dropping restrictions on travel that he says run counter to American values.
Rep. Crawford is selling his bill on agriculture exports to Cuba in language that conforms to the President’s views on trade: “(The president) has stated many times – and I agree – that bilateral trade agreements are the best trade agreements because (they’re) easier to manage, easier to enforce … and they’re more transparent,” Crawford said. “I think he’ll look at this as an opportunity to engage in bilateral trade that’s meaningful for both, but a good deal for the United States.”
These legislators have even greater traction by operating with backing from the House Cuba Working Group, an informal advocacy group on Capitol Hill whose members by rule are drawn from both political parties.
The Brookings Institution, which recently examined the threats of corrosive partisanship, distrust, and dysfunction in Congress, believes that caucuses like the Cuba Working Group offer a promising way to rebuild bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
Research shows these caucuses build the “cross-partisan relationships and shared knowledge needed for legislative consensus” in important policy areas, and that legislators who pursue bipartisan strategies are more effective than those with partisan records, and that cooperating with colleagues across the aisle increases their probability of reelection.
The effort to preserve and build on the past administration’s opening to Cuba is going to be an uphill battle. The smart money, as former Pentagon official Frank Mora said this week, is on those who want engagement to fail. The smart money is not even on the airline industry executives representing carriers with routes to Cuba (Delta Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Air Group) who met with President Trump this week in the White House and who, according to the meeting transcript, said nothing publicly about preserving travel to Cuba.
But we’re with the leaders who are linking arms with counterparts across the aisle who believe that by working together we can realize our aspirations for preserving the opening to Cuba.
They’re extremely bipartisan.
This week, in Cuba news…
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, the most senior U.S. official to visit Cuba since the Trump administration took office, believes Cuba’s government remains committed to advancing relations with the U.S., reports Reuters. During his February 2-5 trade mission to Havana, Gov. Hickenlooper met with Josefina Vidal, Director General of the U.S. Department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, who expressed her government’s willingness to work with the Trump administration.
The Colorado governor, who traveled to the island with business leaders and representatives from cultural institutions from his state, also met with cuentapropistas, small business owners, during the trip. He told Reuters, “Some of the business people did say if you see President Trump please tell him to let us keep the beginnings of this new inspiration.” According to Reuters, Gov. Hickenlooper “said the purpose of his trip was to view post-Fidel Castro Cuba” and to invite Cuba to attend Colorado’s Biennial of the Americas in September; the governor said the invitation had been accepted.
According to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Hickenlooper is the eighth U.S. governor to visit the island since the December 17, 2014 announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would seek to normalize relations. CubaDebate notes that since the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations, 47 official U.S. delegations have visited Cuba, and 25 official delegations from Cuba have visited the U.S., 6 of which it called “high-level.”
The Trump administration announced February 3 that it has begun a “full review” of Cuba policy.
At 5:00 p.m. on January 12, Cuban doctors working in third countries who had already begun migration proceedings were allowed to complete the process of moving to the U.S. under the so-called Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program that was terminated by President Barack Obama’s administration.
The Associated Press reports that about 20 doctors and their families reached Miami on Monday, with “more…expected on flights this week.” Last month, the Miami Herald reported that “hundreds” of doctors had been in the process of applying for parole when the program was halted.
The Cuban Medical Professional Parole program, adopted in August 2006, permitted Cuban medical personnel who are stationed overseas to provide health care in underserved areas to apply for parole to gain U.S. residency along with their immediate families. The program, designed to lure medical professionals trained in Cuba which had long been criticized as a regime change effort, received heightened attention after Cuban doctors led the global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
According to the Miami Herald, the quarterly report issued by the Cuba Standard Economic Trend Index predicts that Cuba’s GDP will continue to drop in 2017, by between 0.3 and 1.4 percent, contrary to projections by Cuba’s government of 2 percent GDP growth this year. When Cuba’s National Assembly met in December 2016, Economic Minister Ricardo Cabrisas reported that the country’s GDP had decreased by 0.9 percent in 2016, marking the first time since 1993 that the country’s economy had shrunk.
Mr. Cabrisas attributed the decrease to the significant drop in subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela last year, reduced payments to Cuban doctors working abroad, a chronic lack of hard currency, and global falling prices for nickel. In the quarterly report, the Cuba Standard Economic Trend Index also said that Cuba repaid over $5 billion in debt to foreign creditors last year, and meeting these obligations also contributed to the decline in GDP. As Reuters reported in October last year, Cuba paid the first installment, of $40 million, of its renegotiated debts (which total $2.6 million) to the 14 members of the Ad-Hoc Group of the Paris Club.
Going forward, the report cites uncertainty regarding the country’s trade agreements with Venezuela, as Venezuela’s economic crisis will likely continue to affect its subsidized oil shipments to Cuba.
The Cuban economist Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban Central Bank official who now teaches at Javeriana University in Colombia, created the Cuba Standard Economic Trend Index.
Meet the GOP Congressmen Who Could Sell Trump on Cuba, Leani García, Americas Quarterly
Leani García of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas highlights the pro-engagement and normalization efforts of Reps. Tom Emmer (MN-6), Rick Crawford (AR-1), and Mark Sanford (SC-1), each of whom has sponsored bipartisan bills in the 115th Congress supporting trade with Cuba, agricultural exports to Cuba, and the freedom to travel to Cuba, respectively.
Weekly Chart: A Snapshot of U.S.-Cuba Travel and Trade Today, Elizabeth González, Americas Society/Council of the Americas
The Americas Society/Council of the Americas examines the rapid increase in U.S. travel to Cuba over the last year – Cuba received 74 percent more U.S. visitors in 2016 than in 2015 – and looks at the last ten years’ worth of U.S. exports to Cuba. Take a look at the stats here.