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Have the political winds finally shifted on lifting the Cuban embargo?

Americans oppose the continuation of the embargo by a large margin. Congress might be starting to notice.

Supporters of ending the trade and travel embargoes against Cuba hope that loosened travel restrictions to the island will bolster public support for changing U.S. policy.
REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

A lot has changed in the last 55 years in U.S. politics — which party controls Congress and the presidency, the size and reach of the federal bureaucracy, America’s rivals abroad. But through all that turmoil, you could count on one thing never changing: the embargo that prohibits trade and travel to and from Cuba.

Over most of the last six decades, few have really cared enough to do something about it; even as the Cold War ended, the Castro regime endured, and many policymakers — if only privately — came to believe the embargo didn’t really work.

But if Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tom Emmer have their way, that’s going to change. They are the sponsors of their respective chambers’ bills to end the trade embargo.

Klobuchar and Emmer are not the first politicians to attempt to lift the embargo on Cuba — many others, including Klobuchar herself, have tried and failed before.In the past, tepid public support for lifting the embargo made it so that a vocal anti-Castro faction in Congress and elsewhere could ensure political disaster for anyone who suggested the kind of push that’s being mounted now.

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That has changed: a big reason why Klobuchar and Emmer believe they have a shot is because this is a moment in time with historically high levels of public support for ending the embargo. As of last July, a poll found 72 percent of Americans favor lifting the trade embargo.

Klobuchar and Emmer’s pitch — unthinkable even a few years ago — is now very credible: this thing is going to happen and you might as well get on board now.

‘It really is going to take leadership’

In an interview with MinnPost, Klobuchar expressed optimism that Congress will pass her bill, or Sen. Jeff Flake’s bill to repeal the travel ban, at some point in the near future.

She pointed to some preliminary committee votes in favor of ending the embargo as a sign that Congress is closer than ever to making it happen.

“If there was a majority vote now, we’d win, but that’s not the way this works,” Klobuchar said, adding that 60 votes would be needed to pass her bill out of the Senate.

Senators supportive of a Cuba change can expect vehement opposition from three of their Cuban-American colleagues: Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey).

In a chamber of 100, three determined senators can do a lot of delaying. That’s why Klobuchar, though she is optimistic, is reluctant to put a timeline on legislation.

“It really is going to take leadership, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats or whoever’s in control next year, to get the bill called up for a vote,” Klobuchar said. She said she is certain that if Democrats control the Senate, her bill and the travel ban will get a vote. She’s even optimistic that could happen if the GOP holds the upper chamber.

Many House Republicans remain opposed

In the conservative confines of the House GOP conference, Emmer has encountered plenty of dissenters as he actively seeks out partners to advance his legislation.

Though the House is four times larger than the Senate, Emmer’s embargo-lifting bill has 22 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors — two fewer than Klobuchar’s Senate bill.

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Many of Emmer’s Republican colleagues are critical of the Obama-led detente, particularly the four Cuban-American Republicans — Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Alex Mooney — who are deeply opposed to any change to U.S.-Cuba policy.

They and like-minded Republicans feel that lifting the embargo will strengthen, not weaken, the regime’s hand in Cuba. Curbelo, a freshman who represents the tip of the Florida peninsula, has said that lifting the embargo constitutes “appeasement” of the Castros.

Countering Klobuchar and Emmer’s optimism, some Cuban-American members are bullish about their prospects of blocking embargo legislation. Rep. Diaz-Balart told the Miami Herald in April that they have “more support in the House now than we have ever had,” and says people have been declaring the death of the embargo almost since it was imposed.

Indeed, this wouldn’t be the first time House members have blocked action on lifting the embargo.

In 2010, with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate, Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson worked to pass a single package lifting the trade and travel bans out of the Agriculture Committee, which he then chaired.

It cleared the panel by a vote of 25 to 20 in July, but it then languished in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The bill had the backing of 16 members, including Rep. Keith Ellison, but it faced too much opposition from some committee members, like South Florida’s Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

By the time the post-election lame-duck session rolled around, Peterson had declared the effort dead.

The congressional dynamics are going to have to be different in order for this effort, or future ones, to succeed.

But will that effort include Cuban-American lawmakers? Emmer says he has personally spoken with or sat down with each Cuban-American House member. “We must respect where these members are coming from,” he said, in order to “to move forward, to build a real consensus, they need to be a part of the conversation and have a seat at the table.”

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In private, other members are “always receptive and generally agree that the embargo, as a matter of policy, has failed,” according to Emmer.

The positions of Minnesota’s other Republican lawmakers underscore the dynamics at play. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a vocal backer of free trade, told MinnPost he supports lifting the trade and travel bans.

Rep. John Kline’s stance might be representative of where much of the GOP caucus is at: supportive of free trade, but concerned about maintaining a hard line against the Castros — and wary of validating what could be a signature Obama foreign policy achievement.

A spokesman for Kline reiterated the congressman’s support for free trade and and democracy in Cuba, but added he is “not confident” that the White House will hold “the Castro dictatorship regime accountable.”

Travel opening may lead the way

Those like Klobuchar and Emmer believe their colleagues with reservations will come around eventually, and they can already see how it might happen.

The bills to lift the trade and travel bans in this Congress are separate, unlike what Peterson attempted to advance in 2011. Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who sponsors the bill rolling back the travel ban, told the Washington Post that if a floor vote happened now, “we’d get well north of 60 votes.” His bill has 51 co-sponsors, including Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken.

As U.S. citizens start taking advantage of loosened travel restrictions, and flying on U.S. carriers to visit the island, defending the travel ban will become an increasingly untenable position.

If Congress approved the removal of the travel ban first, many believe it will put pressure on lawmakers to take care of the trade piece, too. Klobuchar often says that if the U.S. does not act soon to lift the trade embargo, tourists from the U.S. and elsewhere will eat in Chinese-owned restaurants and sleep in German-owned hotels.

“If you lift the travel ban, you have five million Americans every year, and that’s going to create certainty for investment in the hotel and travel industry,” Klobuchar told MinnPost.

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U.S. businesses are going to want to capitalize on the opportunities created by all those yankee tourists heading south, but they can’t unless the trade embargo is lifted.

Klobuchar and Emmer would no doubt prefer to pass all Cuba reforms in a single package. “There are numerous shortcomings from going with the piecemeal approach,” Emmer said, though he acknowleged it might be necessary given the political realities of the situation.

Next year in Havana

Despite all the claims to momentum, or a high water-mark of public support, it’s still not clear exactly when any of this is going to happen.

On one thing, virtually everyone agrees: any vote is unlikely before the November elections. Because the issue is not strictly partisan, both parties’ leaders have incentive to protect vulnerable members from a controversial Cuba vote.

That’s conventional wisdom in places with large Cuban-American populations, like South Florida and Greater New York, where a hot-button vote could cause unwanted headaches for incumbents.

Though Emmer said that something could happen during the 114th Congress, no one is holding their breath for a big breakthrough in the lame duck session at the end of this year.

The consensus appears to be that any historic advancement of policy in Congress will happen in the 115th Congress, and with a new president in the White House.

For the first time ever, Klobuchar says, the likely presidential candidates from both parties support a change in Cuba policy.

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump expressed approval for the detente that’s occurred under Obama. In July 2015, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton told a South Florida crowd that “the Cuba embargo needs to go.”

“That’s significant,” Klobuchar said. She emphasized that the historic change she and others are proposing needs to be done carefully.

“But the change is coming. We want to be a part of it.”