New push underway to get Congress to end the Cuba blockade

The Latin America Working Group based in Washington D.C is calling for a new push to get the U.S. Congress to end the blockade on trade with Cuba and the prohibition on travel by U.S. citizens to the island except for certain purposes.

Evidently, many people have the wrong idea that because President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro have met, the “Cuban five” are all back home with their families, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been restored and the U.S. has taken Cuba off its “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list that relations between the two countries are now normal. 

In fact, the central element of the U.S. Cuba blockade, which consists of legislation passed by Congress that cannot be repealed by the president’s executive action, is still in force.  The most important items in that respect include the Toricelli Act, or Cuban Democracy Act, passed in 1992 and signed by President George W. H. Bush, and the Helms-Burton Act, or Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, passed in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton.

These two acts taken together tie the president’s hands and make it impossible for him to fully restore trade with Cuba, or issue a blanket authorization for U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents to travel to Cuba as tourists or for any other purpose.  

The blockade continues to hurt the interests of ordinary people in Cuba by the strain it puts on the Cuban economy.  A big complaint by the Cubans is that although they can buy agricultural products from the United States, they are not allowed to do so on a credit basis, only by direct cash transactions.  Cuba would also like to sell things to the United States, not just buy from us. 

The blockade is enforced by a U.S. government agency, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which comes under the Department of the Treasury.  This entity has continued to assiduously hunt down not only U.S. companies and individuals, but also ones in third countries, to block their trade with Cuba, all under the authority of the blockade legislation.  This has caused a lot of friction between the United States and its allies and trading partners. 

But strong forces are building up within the United States that want the blockade to end.  These include some major business sectors-agribusiness, but also tourism and others.  These economic groups are in a position to pressure Republican lawmakers to support legislation to end the blockade and the travel ban.

The specific bills in Congress that the Latin America Working Group urges us to focus on are the following:

HR 664, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015, would eliminate current restrictions on travel to Cuba. Its chief sponsors are Reps. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.. The bill has 127 cosponsors, of whom 109 are Democrats and 18 are Republicans.  For a bill to pass the House, it needs 217 votes.

Most Democrats are likely to vote for these bills, which have been requested by President Obama.   The complete list of cosponsors so far can be seen here on the website of the U.S. Congress.

HR 3238, the Cuba Trade Act of 2015, would remove all restrictions on U.S. private companies trading with Cuba.  The chief sponsors are Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., and Rep. Cathy Castor, D-Fla.  At writing it has 22 cosponsors, 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

HR 3687, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act of 2015, sponsored by Rep. Eric Crawford, R-Ark., would allow U.S. farmers to sell their products to Cuba on credit as well as invest in Cuban agricultural operations.

There are many other bills in Congress dealing with Cuba, but the Latin American Working Group think these three have the best chance of passing.

What’s stopping us?  Besides the misconception that the Cuba issue is now “over,” many people on the left in the United States are queasy about getting involved in anything having to do with “lobbying,” especially if it entails talking to Republican politicians. Some may think that our political system is so hopelessly corrupt that there is no way that anything can be achieved by engaging with it.

These are ideas we have to overcome.  In this case, the self-perceived interests of business groups and both Republican and Democratic politicians align with our own goals of ending the Cuba blockade and Travel ban.  We may not agree with these people on anything else, but if we care about what happens to Cuba, this is one of the most useful things we can do right now. 

And it is not hard.  We are not talking about taking senators to expensive, dimly lit restaurants and passing money to them under the table. What is needed is that progressive people start e-mailing, writing and faxing their senators and representatives asking them to support this legislation.

Online communications and social media have the capacity to greatly expand the outreach of this kind of lobbying. Visits to Congressional and Senatorial offices, both in the home districts and in Washington D.C., are not hard to organize either.

One needs to research the particular politician and then organize a small committee with representatives from groups such as clergy, business, labor and set up visits in which  the argument is made that the former Cuba policy has not produced any results other than to hurt ordinary Cuban people and undercut U.S. businesses.  The goal is not to win over Rep. X or Sen. Y to support the socialist revolution, but just to get her or him to co-sponsor the bill and vote for it when it is called up.  

It’s simple and may seem very mundane, but it is very, very important.  

Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP


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.