Last Friday, a few hundred people gathered in Havana to witness a historic event: the raising of the American flag on Cuban soil, symbolically re-opening the U.S. embassy after half a century of lapsed diplomatic ties. Among the people present were Secretary of State John Kerry, a host of Cuban government officials, and a select few members of Congress — including Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The Obama administration appeared to reward lawmakers driving the Cuba policy shift in Congress with an opportunity to witness the event: Klobuchar, along with Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, sponsored a bill to officially lift the trade embargo on Cuba. Flake and Leahy joined Klobuchar in the delegation. Members of the House of Representatives like California Democrat Barbara Lee, who has pushed for a change in Cuba policy for years, also went on the trip.
According to Klobuchar, who spoke with MinnPost on Monday, the day was a whirlwind, beginning with an early-early-morning flight to Havana from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington and ending with a late night flight back. There was “buoyancy in the air” in Havana, she said. She recalled as a high point the raising of the flag itself, which was carried out by three retired Marines — the last ones to pull down the flag when U.S.–Cuba ties ceased in 1961.
Klobuchar said the response from most Cubans was very positive. “There were just a few hundred in the embassy area,” she said, but “outside of the gates, people were cheering.” Cubans both in and outside the gates proudly sang their national anthem, she recalled.
Rubio: ‘a propaganda rally’
While the White House and others celebrated the day as a high water mark of American diplomacy, a vocal opposition, including many Cuban-Americans, painted it as a travesty. Republican presidential candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio denounced the re-opening of embassies in a fiery speech from New York City the same day. He accused President Obama of legitimizing a state sponsor of terror and rewarding the Castro regime’s tactics at the expense of Cuba’s oppressed.
To Rubio, the flag-raising at the embassy was “little more than a propaganda rally for the Castro regime.”
Klobuchar said she wasn’t surprised by the rhetoric of her Senate colleague — nor by his argument. “We’ve had over 50 years of a failed policy and it hasn’t worked, it hasn’t changed their government,” she said. “It’s time for something new.”
Ever the diplomat, Klobuchar said she understood where people like Rubio are coming from. “There are people who had friends and relatives in prison — there’s a reason they’re angry at this regime,” she said. “People want to see the same results. But they go about it in a different way.”
Despite the significant changes to the U.S.–Cuba relationship since last December’s prisoner swap, the opposition of Rubio and others underscores how much still needs to happen before relations are truly normal again. The travel and trade embargoes can technically only be lifted with congressional approval, and getting the necessary support could be an uphill climb in this GOP-controlled Congress — even though some Republicans support ending the embargo. Klobuchar says she hopes her trade ban-ending bill and the travel ban lift can advance in the next year or two. Her bill currently has over 20 co-sponsors, and it could potentially pick up even more support if brought to the floor for a vote. The White House, however, is signaling it may work around much of the travel embargo on its own.
Despite the challenges ahead, to Klobuchar, August 14 is perhaps the most significant day — at least symbolically — of the U.S.–Cuba detente so far. She recalled a moment during the day where it began to rain, and people retreated inside the embassy. “This guy was on the piano, and he started playing ‘God Bless America’ and everyone burst into song,” she said. “I thought, this song hasn’t been sung here for quite a while.”