A bipartisan group of senators on Monday introduced a bill that would end the commercial blockade on Cuba while maintaining other U.S. laws that impose human rights-based restrictions on the island nation.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), showcases political divisions over a blockade that’s been in place more than six decades.
An array of powerful Democrats and Republicans oppose leniency toward the Cuban regime, to say nothing of a radical policy shift such as lifting the trade embargo.
But some Republicans see Cuba as an untapped market of 11 million people a stone’s throw from Florida, and some Democrats see the embargo as a Cold War-era anachronism.
“I have long pushed to reform our relationship with Cuba, which for decades has been defined by conflicts of the past instead of looking toward the future,” Klobuchar said in a statement.
“By ending the trade embargo with Cuba once and for all, our bipartisan legislation will turn the page on the failed policy of isolation while creating a new export market and generating economic opportunities for American businesses,” she added.
It’s no coincidence that both Republican co-sponsors are from Kansas, a major agricultural state.
“The unilateral trade embargo on Cuba blocks our own farmers, ranchers and manufacturers from selling into a market only 90 miles from our shoreline, while foreign competitors benefit at our expense,” Moran said.
In 2020, Cuba’s top imports were poultry meat, wheat, corn, concentrated milk, rice and dried legumes, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. And its top import partners were Spain, China, Italy, Brazil, Canada and the United States.
While the United States is one of the top exporters of food to Cuba — indeed the top exporter, according to a January 2022 report by CBS Miami — restrictions on trade make it harder for U.S. farmers to export their food there, according to a 2021 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
And because of the embargo, the Cuban government imposes restrictions on who can import and distribute U.S. products, further diminishing the market for those goods.
“I’m proud to sign onto the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act. It’s important for the United States to boost our economic opportunities and increase market access for American-made goods,” said Marshall.
According to the CRS report, Cuba was the ninth largest export market for U.S. agricultural products before 1960; it now ranks as the 50th market, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Dominican Republic, a U.S. ally in the Caribbean with a population similar to Cuba’s, ranks 15th and over the past three years has imported seven times more U.S. agricultural products than Cuba.
Because of its proximity to Cuba, the United States has a baked-in advantage over other major agricultural producers, but countries such as Brazil remain competitive because of unfettered trade with the island.
“This legislation will expand market opportunities for U.S. producers by allowing them to compete on a level playing field with other countries. It is time to amend our own laws to give U.S. producers fair access to market to consumers in Cuba,” Moran said.
While the economic argument may sway some Republicans from the plains states, any easing of sanctions on the communist regime is an uphill battle.
According to the bill’s proponents, it would maintain restrictions tied to the Cuban government’s human rights record and to its takeover of private property following the 1959 revolution.
“We can expand opportunities for American businesses and farmers to trade with Cuba while still holding the Cuban government accountable for its human rights record. This bipartisan legislation is a smart fix that will create American jobs and benefit the Cuban people,” Murphy said.
But if the bill is picked up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), it will face two powerful Cuba hawks on either side of the aisle in Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and panel Chairman Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.).
“So good luck with that,” said a senior Democratic aide.
And even if the bill manages to avoid SFRC, it’s unlikely it will be put to a vote unless leadership is convinced there’s enough support for to get 60 votes.
Still, the bill gives voice to those who seek to rethink a policy toward Cuba that’s remained essentially static for more than half a century.
“It is long past time for us to normalize relations with Cuba,” Warren said. “This legislation takes important steps to remove barriers for U.S. trade and relations between our two countries and moves us in the right direction by increasing economic opportunities for Americans and the Cuban people.”