Companies urged to push for easing Cuba restrictions

Congressional supporters of easing restrictions on travel and agricultural trade to Cuba say business supporters need to offer stronger backing for several measures introduced this year if they are to become law.

Congressional supporters of easing restrictions on travel and agricultural trade to Cuba say business supporters need to offer stronger backing for several measures introduced this year if they are to become law.

With Democrats in control of the House, Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.) said Cuba legislation has a great chance of moving this year, but Farr emphasized that the business community must become more engaged. Things get done in Washington “when there’s a stick upside your head,” Farr said, and business needs to increase pressure on members of Congress on Cuba.

Flake said business and farm groups should talk to more members about how lifting trade and travel restrictions will help the U.S. and Cuba. He spoke following a rally sponsored by USA Engage, an umbrella organization for business and agriculture groups that favors lifting Cuba trade and travel bans.

USA Engage Director Jake Colvin acknowledged that companies have not been especially active on Cuba, partly because they saw it as a lost cause given the Bush administration’s active efforts to tighten Cuba trade and travel bans. Yet while individual companies are reluctant to speak publicly, Colvin said more business representatives are willing to engage in private discussions on the issue because of the improving political climate.

“As business groups see the prospects for change, they’ll be willing to do more,” Colvin said.

Groups that support lifting the travel ban and restrictions on agricultural trade include the National Foreign Trade Council and several agriculture groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, USA Rice Federation and groups representing wheat and soybean producers.

Of the several Cuba bills that have been introduced this year, legislation introduced last week by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) easing restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans is considered to have the most momentum. Under rules imposed by the administration in 2004, Cuban-Americans may visit family members in Cuba once every three years. In addition, they only may visit “close relatives,” which, under the administration’s rules, does not include aunts and uncles.

If Delahunt’s bill is approved by Congress, Flake said he would be “very surprised” if President Bush vetoed legislation easing these rules. “From a humanitarian point of view, it’s hard to argue about allowing Cuban-Americans to go home and see their grandmother,” agreed Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who supports the legislation.

Some Democrats also see the Delahunt legislation as a way to make inroads with Cuban-Americans, who tend to vote Republican. New Democrat Network Hispanic Strategy Center Director Joe Garcia, who opposes lifting the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba, is supporting Delahunt’s legislation and calls it a political opportunity for Democrats.

Garcia said Democrats need to find common ground with Cuban-Americans, noting that easing travel restrictions is a way to do that. Lifting the entire travel ban would be overreaching, he said. “We’ve got to do this incrementally,” he said.

President Clinton won about 38 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida in 1996, but Vice President Al Gore won only about 10 percent in 2000 because of opposition to the Clinton administration’s handling of the Elian Gonzalez case, in which a Cuban child forcibly was returned to his father in Cuba, Garcia said. With 38 percent of the Cuban vote, it would be difficult for a Democratic presidential candidate to lose Florida, he said.

Flake has reintroduced legislation co-sponsored by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) to lift the overall travel ban. In an interview, Rangel said he would push hard for a vote on the bill, adding that while he has yet to speak with Democratic leaders, he does not anticipate a problem.

Rangel acknowledged that President Bush may veto the legislation for political reasons. “The president will probably veto it,” Rangel said. “For the president, you know, it’s not a trade thing, it’s a Miami thing.”

Supporters said the legislation could face an uphill climb in the Senate, as Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who are both of Cuban descent, are on record as supporting the travel ban.

The executive director of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, Sylvia Wilhelm, anticipated that House International Relations Committee ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and other members of the Florida congressional delegation will oppose lifting any travel restrictions. Wilhelm said she was hopeful, however, that key senators such as Martinez and Menendez would at least support lifting the restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans.

Separately, Moran has introduced legislation easing restrictions on exports of food and agricultural commodities to Cuba. The key provision in Moran’s bill allows sales of agricultural goods to Cuba once shipments leave U.S. ports. Current rules do not allow U.S. shipments to leave U.S. ports until a payment is received, which critics say thwarts efforts to increase agricultural exports to Cuba.

Moran’s bill would also allow visas to be issued to Cuban officials and U.S. citizens to travel between the U.S. and Cuba to conduct agricultural sales, and would let U.S. banks participate in transactions, although they could not finance sales.

In an interview, Moran said Martinez would be a key in the Senate. He said he was hopeful Martinez would choose not to block the legislation, and noted the senator has expressed support for some level of agricultural trade to Cuba.

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