The issue of Cuba is gaining attention within the U.S. Congress, in a scenario where hostility and polarization are setting the pace of the legislative body.
A few weeks ago, the introduction of a bill to allow U.S. citizens to travel freely to Cuba made the news, since currently they can only do so within established licensed categories, and never as tourists. A bipartisan coalition of 55 senators supported the proposal, which was officially presented by Republican Jeff Flake and Democrat Patrick Leahy.
On the day he filed the bill, Flake told reporters: “It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government.” Meanwhile, Leahy stressed that the travel restriction is not justified by national security concerns or economic interests.
Despite these arguments and majority support for the initiative in the 100-member Senate, its approval is not guaranteed. In fact, the same bill was introduced in 2015 in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and although it was supported by 132 representatives and 54 senators, it was not put to a vote.
The path that a bill must take within the Capitol to become law is long and complex. It is not only a question of formal rules and procedures, which are in themselves cumbersome, but rather of the practical functioning of a sphere of the state in which the favors owed among Congress members at times matter more than the wishes of the citizens they represent.
In this context, the elimination of the blockade against Cuba, which as a result of the Helms-Burton Act depends on Congress, could become an endless labyrinth of votes.
Barack Obama’s decision to change policy toward Cuba was backed by both Democratic and Republican Congress members, powerful economic sectors, and most of the U.S. public. But it also drew criticism and continues to have uncompromising detractors.
The 114th United States Congress, which took office on January 3, 2015, was one of the battlefields where these two visions met head-on. Bills were simultaneously presented that attempted to pave the way for bilateral relations, and others that sought to hinder them.
For a bill to be sent to the President for signature and conversion into law, it is necessary that both the House and the Senate approve it during the two years of the Congress. Therefore, many of the bills concerning Cuba that did not advance during the course of the 114th Congress are being presented again in the 115th, which began in January.
The issues prioritized by legislators interested in a rapprochement are travel and bilateral economic relations, with emphasis on the provision of credit for agricultural exports.
Thus, in January, the “Cuba Trade Act of 2017” was presented, which proposes, among other things, to amend the Cuban Democracy Act (known as the Torricelli Act) to eliminate: Presidential authority to impose sanctions on Cuba’s trading partners, restrictions on transactions between U.S. owned or controlled firms and Cuba, limitations on direct shipping between Cuban and U.S. ports, and restrictions on remittances. It would also allow U.S. citizen’s to offer payment or financing terms for sales of agricultural commodities or products to Cuba.
The bill was introduced in the House by Representative Tom Emmer, a Republican from the state of Minnesota. So far, it has the support of 14 Republican Congress members and eight Democrats.
In a June 2015 report, the Department of Agriculture noted a decline in the U.S. share of the Cuban food market, which fell from a high of 42% in fiscal year 2009 to just 16% in 2014. The text adds that this fall “is largely attributable to a decrease in bulk commodity exports from the United States in light of favorable credit terms offered by key competitors.”
The report concluded that the lifting of restrictions would help the United States regain its market share in Cuba.
Among Congress members and the economic interests they represent, there is a desire to recover these lost market shares. This is why there has been so much insistence on promoting bills that favor exports. For example, Representative Eric (Rick) Crawford, Republican from Arkansas, introduced the “Cuba Agricultural Exports Act” in January, which has the support of 27 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
A similar bill was presented in the Senate: the “Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2017,” which would permit a person subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to provide payment or financing for sales of agricultural commodities to Cuba. The proposal by Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat for North Dakota, has the backing of 11 Democrat Senators, four Republicans and one independent.
The “Freedom to Export to Cuba Act” is another of the proposals presented recently in the Senate. In this case, it was introduced by Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota, and is intended to repeal or amend several prohibitions that restrict bilateral trade. It has the backing of nine Democrats, three Republicans and one independent.
In total, since January, 12 bills have been submitted in favor of rapprochement with Cuba. Eight were filed in the House of Representatives, and the other four in the Senate. Almost all are proposals that failed to progress during the 114th Congress.
A study of each of these initiatives, and of the agendas they prioritize, allows us to appreciate that they are designed to favor the interests of the United States in the first place, and most do not propose the complete lifting of the blockade, but rather of specific aspects. However, if they were approved, they would mean an easing of the sanctions on Cuba.
But they have a difficult road ahead. Cuban-American Congress members, who were active in the previous legislature in promoting bills to stall rapprochement, continue in key positions. Some of the aforementioned bills have been referred, for example, to the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees, where they are likely to meet with the opposition of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio. Likewise, others will have to pass through the House Budget Committee, where Mario Díaz-Balart sits.
On a positive note, it is worth noting that the issue of Cuba in Congress has drawn bipartisan consensus, something difficult to find with regard to other issues, in a scenario of visibly high levels of polarization. This improves the prospects for bills advancing along the complex path within the legislative body.
The struggle in the Capitol, as far as Cuba is concerned, is not between Democrats and Republicans, since after December 17, 2014, political and economic interests have been generated that go beyond partisan affiliations. Nor would dividing members between “liberals” and “conservatives” make for an adequate analysis, with the first being more interested in bringing Washington and Havana closer. A case that illustrates this point well is that of Senator Jeff Flake, who regularly maintains very conservative positions, and yet has been a major promoter of change in the country's Cuba policy.
Studies on Congress and the proposals presented there in relation to Cuba are essential to understand bilateral relations, and to attempt to answer the eternal question: when will the blockade end?
* Professor of the Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies (CEHSEU) of the University of Havana.