Cuba-U.S. Relations: Next stop, Congress

Negotiations continue between the Cuban and U.S. governments on the normalization of relations. The Cuban position is that there are still things the Obama administration can do by executive order to move things forward. 

However, the core elements of the 55-year U.S. economic blockade of the island nation, as well as restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens and residents, need congressional action to remove severe legal impediments to change. 

This is where we, the people, come in.

The laws that need to be repealed or seriously amended include the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (or Torricelli Act), and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (the Helms-Burton Act).

The Trading with the Enemy Act, originally passed during the First World War, gives the President the right to prohibit trade with any country he or she designates as an enemy power. Currently Cuba is the only country so designated.  President Obama just renewed this act.

The Torricelli Act orders all countries that trade with Cuba to desist from doing so or forfeit any economic aid from the United States.  Foreign ships that trade in Cuban ports are not allowed to enter U.S. ports for 180 days after doing so.  For this act to cease to have force, Cuba must adopt a free market economy and carry out U.S.-style multi-party elections (currently Cuban elections are carried out without party labels). 

The Helms-Burton Act, like the Torricelli Act, openly calls for the overthrow of the Cuban socialist government. Its contents are even more sweeping.

It punishes non-U.S. companies that trade with Cuba, by barring them from operating within the United States and their officers and major stockholders from visiting the United States.  It requires the United States to block Cuban efforts to get aid or credits from international financial institutions.

 It authorizes the U.S. government to finance opposition groups in Cuba, and continues to fund propaganda broadcasts from the United States to Cuba by Radio and TV Marti.  It makes it illegal for the administration to recognize a transitional government in Cuba unless Fidel and Raul Castro are excluded from it, and many similar invasions of the national sovereignty of not only Cuba, but Cuba’s international trading partners.

 The Helms Burton Act also takes away the President’s right to change many of these things, and vests it in Congress.  A particularly obnoxious aspect of Helms-Burton is that it demands compensation for properties formerly owned by U.S. citizens but nationalized by the Cuban Revolution after 1959.

 What is really unusual is that such U.S. citizens would include former Cuban citizens whose property was nationalized before they came to the United States and acquired U.S. citizenship.   In fact, the Cuban government had originally offered U.S. citizens whose property had been nationalized compensation in the form of twenty year bonds at an annual interest rate of 4.5 percent, but the U.S. refused this and would not allow its citizens to accept it.

 The Cuban side says it is perfectly willing to discuss U.S. compensation claims, but in the context of Cuban claims against the United States for billions of dollars of damage done to Cuba by the blockade and by violent terrorist attacks on Cuba launched from the United States. 

The main forces that oppose ending these remaining impediments to the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations are a shrinking group of embittered Cuban exiles, anti-Cuba fanatics, mostly in the Republican Party but some in the Democratic Party too, and companies whose properties were nationalized by Cuba and want compensation.  Most ordinary people in the United States support the Obama administration’s normalization efforts.

But the Republicans currently control Congress.  Does that not suggest that legislative changes are nearly impossible, especially with the coming elections in November, 2016? 

All the major Republican candidates for president except long-shot Rand Paul have denounced Obama’s steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba and say they will reverse them (all the Democratic Party candidates say they will continue them).
However, there are many U.S. business leaders and interests who would love to make money trading with Cuba.  The travel, hotel and restaurant industries are green with envy when they see Spanish and other companies signing joint venture agreements with the Cuban government, while they themselves are excluded from the feast, not by Cuban but by U.S. laws.

 Farm interests would like to be able to sell their products to Cuba on credit, but current U.S. law permits only cash sales.  Some U.S. companies would like to import and market Cuban products, but are not allowed to under U.S. law.  These commercial interests are tactical allies in the attempt to dismantle the blockade. 

On any up and down vote on legislation to dismantle the legal underpinnings of the blockade and travel bans, both Republican and Democratic senators and representatives will be pressured both pro and con by major U.S. business interests.  This is borne out by reports from lobbying visits to congressional offices:  Even some Republican House members, pressured by business interests in their districts, seem willing to consider voting to dismantle the blockade and travel bans, but are clearly pressured by the ideologues of the other side as well.

The closer we get to the 2016 elections, the more demagoguery from the anti-Cuba side will have an impact, so it is important to start right away to push for legislative fixes.  There are, currently, many bills in Congress that would dismantle the economic blockade and/or travel restrictions. 

 Here are some of the most important, which should be the foci of our energetic lobbying efforts:

H.R. 664, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (chief sponsor Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina).

H.R. 3238, the Cuba Trade Act of 2015 (chief sponsor Tom Emmer, R-Minnesota).

S. 299, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (chief sponsor, Jeff Flake, R-Arizona.

S. 491, the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2015 (chief sponsor Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota)

SW. 1543, the Cuba Trade Act of 2015. (chief sponsor, Jerry Moran, R-Kansas).

All of these bills and more can be researched on the handy congressional website.  On this website one can look up bills by number or topic. For each bill, one can find the name of the main sponsor and cosponsors, a summary by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the complete text of the bill, the committees to which it has been assigned, and the progress of the bill through Congress, from its initial introduction through passage, reconciliation of House and Senate versions by a Conference Committee, and its transmission to the president.

It is important to note whether your own Congressperson and senators are cosponsors, and whether they belong to the relevant committees to which the bill is assigned.  The first step is often to make sure that a positive bill is not “killed” in Committee.  In the current Republican-led Congress, that is a whole struggle in and of itself.  The Congressional website provides a handy explanation of the whole legislative process. 

You should be aware of the dates when Congress is in session and when the members plan to be in their home districts, so as to be able to meet with them or their staffs either in D.C. or their district offices.  Members are tentatively scheduled to be working in their home states from Oct. 12 through October 16.  These would be good times to try and set up visits. Most of the time, you will be talking to their staff, not to the senators and congresspersons themselves.

Lobbying visits are most effective when they involve local people including businesspeople, clergy, labor and community leaders who can explain the benefits of Cuba trade and travel for their districts. 

Remember that we are not trying to win over these Republican and Democratic politicians to be supporters of the Cuban Revolution, we simply want them to support, and vote for, the legislation we need.  Whatever works in achieving that is tactically valid.    Effective tactics will raise the issue of how people, and businesses, in the United States will benefit from ending the economic blockade and travel restrictions.  It is important to counter, though, misinformation about Cuba, so one needs to be well prepared for that.

Let’s do it!

Photo:  The U.S. tourist industry is hurting becauue their counterparts in other countries, not having to deal with right-wing Republicans, are making money with the growing number of  tours that include visits to Havana and other places in Cuba.  |  Wikimedia (CC)


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.