A Senate opponent of rolling back a U.S. embargo with Cuba says supporters are putting the financial benefits ahead of the well-being of the Cuban people.
"Evidently ... for many members trade and money is more important than human rights, but that's their prerogative. I don't think they're going to get very far," Sen. Robert Menendez told CQ Roll Call.
The New Jersey Democrat was not particularly concerned with Thursday's introduction of a new proposal by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Angus King, I-Maine, to expand trading opportunities between the U.S. and Cuba. Menendez said he expected Republican leadership would block any such legislation from advancing.
Advocates of the policy changes view the matter through an entirely different lens, making the case that increased interactions with U.S. markets will bring benefits to the Cuban population.
"Cuba is only 90 miles from our border, making it a natural market for our nation’s farmers and ranchers," Moran said in a statement. "By lifting the embargo and opening up the market for U.S. agricultural commodities, we will not only boost the U.S. economy but also help bring about reforms in the repressive Cuban government. I am hopeful that increasing the standard of living among Cuban citizens will enable them to make greater demands on their own government to increase individual and political rights."
King joining with Moran makes the measure bipartisan, because the independent senator from Maine caucuses with Democrats. And in his own statement, King sought to put the matter in historical context.
"Like the Cold War that created it, the embargo should be put in the history books," King said. "The Cuba Trade Act would finally end our outdated embargo policy and establish a new economic relationship with Cuba that will support increased trade for American businesses and help the Cuban economy and its people to flourish. It's past time we take this step forward, and I hope Congress will act to help bring our relationship with Cuba into the 21st century."
The new legislation is designed to allow U.S. agricultural producers and others in private business to trade with Cuba by lifting the embargo, but it would retain existing prohibitions on using federal funds for promotional purposes. Programs such as producer check-offs would be able to fund those market development activities, however.
But Moran and King have an uphill climb against the likes Menendez and Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who are against any proposals akin to what Moran and King unveiled Thursday.
"Senator Rubio opposes any unilateral concessions to the Castro regime that enrich its repressive military and security services while failing to achieve concrete results on political reforms and human rights, the repatriation of U.S. terrorists and fugitives being harbored in Cuba, resolving uncompensated property claims, and removing restrictions on U.S. diplomats in Cuba," Rubio spokesperson Brooke Sammon said.
Rubio and Menendez were, not surprisingly, among the first to criticize news that the Obama administration would be removing the Cuban government from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In recent weeks, Rubio has introduced legislation to block financial transactions with Cuban military and security services — backed by Menendez and others — and pressed Secretary of State John Kerry on negotiations with the government of the island country, ahead of a possible confirmation battle over a U.S. ambassador.
"Establishing diplomatic relations with the Castro regime without verified improvements in the situation faced by the Cuban people would not be consistent with our values as a nation and the intent of the U.S. Congress, as codified in law," Rubio wrote in a June 1 letter. "It is also important that pro-democracy activities not be sacrificed in the name of 'diplomacy' just so that we can change the name of a building from 'Interest Section' to 'Embassy'."
President Barack Obama first announced his intent to significantly change course with respect to Cuba back in December of 2014, but Republican leaders in Congress have been against moves like lifting the longstanding embargo.
And the White House has said Obama would "relish" a trip to Havana . Obama has said he doesn't think keeping an embargo that hasn't succeeded in half a century makes sense.
Speaker John A. Boehner signaled last month that he had no intention of taking legislative steps like those floated by Moran and King.
"As I've said before," the Ohio Republican said in a statement . "relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner."
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