Growing up in South Florida, I was used to conversations about U.S. policy toward Cuba. It made sense: Cuba is just 90 miles off the coast, Florida has the highest concentration of Cuban-Americans in the country, and culturally the Miami area has a lot more in common with its mojito-drinking neighbors to the south than the sweet tea-brewing evangelicals in the state’s panhandle or the Ovaltine-imbibing retirees just about everywhere else around them.
It was less expected, however, to hear a Minnesotan taking a prominent lead in on U.S.’s relationship with Cuba. Stranger still, that Minnesotan was GOP Rep. Tom Emmer, speaking on stage at the improv comedy show I host. Emmer, however, wasn’t joking about wanting to lift the 50-year embargo against Cuba.
Why would a freshman member of Congress from a state 1,800 miles from Cuba and with less than 0.1 percent of its population identifying as Cuban buck his party’s leadership to sponsor a bill lifting the Kennedy-era economic blockade? As with most things, economics has something to do with it.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo costs the United States $1.2 billion annually in lost export revenue. And as Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, told MinnPost earlier this year, Minnesota’s agriculture industry sees some of the most to gain with lifting of the embargo.
Cuba currently imports 80 percent of its food, and although some limited agricultural exceptions were made to the U.S. embargo a decade ago, the complex legal wrangling stifles much of the industry’s export potential. A Texas A&M study estimated that fully lifting the embargo would produce 6,000 new agricultural-sector jobs in the United States. Minnesota-based Cargill is among the agricultural giants eager to engage this new market.
Something more to it
So there are national and district-level economic interests that drive Emmer’s political push to end the embargo. But I think there is something more to it, something that helps explain why so many of Minnesota’s political leaders of both parties have taken a stand against the embargo, while members of Congress from other states with agricultural, medical or tourism sectors that stand much to gain in a post-embargo world have not.
Minnesotans, if nothing else, are a practical people. Living through eight months of winter (with just four hours of sunlight each day and everything uphill both ways) leaves most of us with little patience for anything that’s clearly not working. If you have boots with poor traction, you don’t wait to slip on the ice for 50 years without getting new ones. If you’ve got a recipe for cranberry bars that always turns out bitter and dry, you don’t keep bringing them to the school bake sale. If you have a football team that never wins a Super Bowl – well that’s a different story.
The one thing people on all sides of the Cuba debate can agree upon is that the embargo is clearly not working. Congressional legislation that codified the embargo into law declared it would only be lifted when Cuba legalized all political activity, released all political prisoners, committed to free and fair elections in the transition to democracy, granted freedom to the press and allowed labor unions.
Fifty years of embargo has done little to achieve those goals. The Castros will have outlasted 10 U.S. presidents before their handpicked successor takes over in 2018 – and not by democratic means. As of July 2015, Cuba was still holding 60 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International. At least two-dozen are being held for participating in peaceful political protests.
Political cover for any complaint
Instead of driving change, the embargo has provided the Castro regime with political cover for virtually any complaint against it. Whenever Cuba faces domestic troubles, whether the food shortages of the early 1990s or ongoing currency crises, the regime points to the embargo. And the Cuban people regularly follow suit.
There is evidence that the argument has salience beyond the island as well. Earlier this year, a United Nations vote calling on the U.S. to end the blockade was passed 191–2, with only Israel joining the U.S. defending the embargo.
The United States gave the embargo a shot. After 50 years, there’s been little progress toward the embargo’s stated goals, the economic harm to U.S. industries is in the billions of dollars, and virtually every other country on the globe is telling us to cut it out.
So in Minnesota fashion, perhaps we should move on from something that’s clearly not working and try something else. It’s that spirit that has allowed Minnesotans to survive generations of winters. It drives our artists and businesses to be some of the most innovative in the world. And it ought to continue to inform our political leaders.
Just don’t apply it to Vikings fans.
Tane Danger is the co-founder and host of The Theater of Public Policy. You can follow him on Twitter at @TaneDanger.
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