“I am here in the hope that we can do business,” Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura told a Cuban audience after cutting the ceremonial ribbon with Fidel Castro to open the recent US Food and Agribusiness Exhibition in Havana. Ventura was perhaps the most recognizable personality among some 700 US civic leaders, farmers and businessmen who brought everything from California wine to Michigan corn flakes to a three-day food fair in September. He symbolizes the new and growing middle-American political effort to, as he put it, “bring the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba to a more civilized level of cooperation and communication.”
After forty years of efforts by Washington to isolate the Castro government and strangle Cuba economically, opponents of the embargo have finally gained the upper hand. The pro-engagement lobby has been empowered by several factors: mobilization of moderate Cuban-Americans in Florida after the embarrassing Elián González saga; changes in travel regulations at the end of the Clinton Administration, which have allowed more people, particularly from the Cuban-American community, to visit the island; and Castro’s decision to spend $120 million in cash over the past year to purchase food and agricultural products from key farm states [see Kornbluh, “Cuban Embargo-Buster?” December 31, 2001].
The allure of Cuban markets, as the food fair demonstrated, has brought hundreds of companies and business representatives to the island–as well as to Washington. In mid-September many of those who later attended the Food Exhibition gathered in the nation’s capital for a National Summit on Cuba Policy. “The tide has changed,” Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake told the audience. “The momentum is with us.”
The summit, sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the World Policy Institute and Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba, and supported by USA Engage (a business coalition), reflects the new face of Cuba politics. Once the domain of solidarity groups and progressive NGOs, the campaign to change Cuba policy is now led by Republican-dominated business groups, farm and travel associations, port authorities, trade councils and an ever-growing number of moderate Cuban-Americans from Florida–interests that carry significant political clout in local, state and national political circles.
That clout is being exercised effectively and forcefully. In July, the House passed three amendments to the Treasury-Postal Appropriations bill that would, at least temporarily, block the Bush Administration from enforcing limits on travel, commerce and remittances to Cuba. Day two of the summit, September 18, was designated Cuban American Advocacy Day. A planeload of Miami Cubans arrived in Washington to join business representatives from farm states in lobbying the Senate on the legislation.
Recent surveys show the Cuban-American community to be fractured between the hard-line anti-Castro exiles who once dominated Cuba-policy debates and far more moderate Cuban-Americans–with growing numbers now supporting travel, trade and dialogue. “The Cuban-American community is not monolithic,” Silvia Wilhelm, founder of Puentes Cubanos (Cuban Bridges) and an organizer of the advocacy day, told the summit, “and we never have been.”
The Bush Administration, which remains adamantly opposed to the concept of engaging Cuba through commerce and contact, is waging a dirty war of words. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Dan Fisk, speaking at the summit, accused Cuba of “impeding our efforts to defeat the threat of terrorism” by giving false leads to US authorities, an unsubstantiated charge that few in the audience accepted. His boss, Assistant Secretary Otto Reich, admonished Governor Ventura to steer clear of “sexual tourism” in Cuba. Meanwhile, the White House continues to court votes–most immediately for brother Jeb–among right-wing Cuban-Americans by threatening to veto any bill that softens the embargo.
Those votes might have been the minuscule margin that put George Bush in the White House, but they no longer hold sway in Congress. The House is only fourteen votes short of a majority for ending the embargo, and the Senate has voted twice over the past three years to ease restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to the island. With the resignation of Senator Robert Torricelli, the standard-bearer for the extremist exile lobby, the Senate is more likely than ever to move toward direct trade with Cuba. Indeed, there is significant optimism that the momentum toward lifting sanctions will continue. “It is all a matter of time,” predicted Kirby Jones, a veteran of business efforts to initiate trade with Cuba, “before we can have our mojitos [rum drinks] on Cuba’s beaches.”