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Congress Still Divided on Cuba

As previously reported, the Obama Administration is actively continuing its rapprochement with Cuba, most recently removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, despite this consistent push from the Administration and the strong interest of the U.S. business community to enter the Cuba market as quickly as possible, Congress remains divided on how best to approach Cuba. In recent days, powerful Members of Congress has taken divergent steps to either expand the relationship or put the brakes on the momentum.

On the pro-engagement side, on June 12, Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Angus King (I-ME) introduced the Cuba Trade Act, which would end the U.S. embargo of Cuba and almost all other limits on trade. In introducing the bill, Sen. Moran stated, “By lifting the embargo and opening up the market for U.S. agricultural commodities, we will not only boost the U.S. economy, but also help bring about reforms in the repressive Cuban government.”

At the same time as the bill was introduced, three Republican Senators, Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) were in Cuba on a fact-finding mission. The goal of their mission was to gauge progress on talks to restore normal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. During the visit, Sen. Flake said the opening of a U.S. embassy would be “imminent.”

Despite these positive statements, the funding of an embassy, the approval of a new U.S. Ambassador, and major changes to the remaining embargo require Congressional approval and there many hurdles to overcome. Many Members of Congress remain opposed to re-opening ties with Cuba. Senator Menendez (D-NJ), expressing the sentiments of many of his anti-Castro colleagues, hinted that he would attempt to block any effort to normalize relations with Cuba. He stated “Evidently … for many members trade and money is more important than human rights, but that’s their prerogative. I don’t think they’re going to get very far.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) recently put down specific markers on what he believes should happen before diplomatic relations are restored. In a recent letter to President Obama, Sen. Rubio said he would block any nomination for a new U.S. ambassador to Cuba until there were changes in four key areas: “the lack of political reforms on the island; the harboring of known terrorists and other fugitives from U.S. justice; the outstanding American property claims and judgments against the Cuban government; and the limitations that continue to be placed on American diplomats working in Havana.” Of this list, the settlement of U.S. property claims, as well as issues related to the misuse of U.S. intellectual property, may be the most challenging and have been regularly highlighted by Members of Congress as a condition for further U.S.-Cuba engagement.

On the House side, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) rejected any opening with Cuba, stating “relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner.” In addition, 35 House Members joined in a draft bill led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) that was intended to reverse President Obama’s de-listing of Cuba a terrorism sponsor, but stopped their efforts when instructed by the House Parliamentarian that Congress lacked the authority to restrain the President in this way. On the other hand, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) remains supportive of President Obama’s efforts.

With Congress still divided on how to navigate relations with Congress, President Obama will likely set the course himself, using his own authority as much as possible. Look for Congress to hold off on supporting the President’s efforts until they show tangible successes with regard to liberalizing the Cuban political environment, protecting U.S. property interests, and demonstrating the true potential for trade and investment.