Holding the Line on Cuba Trade

Anti-Castro Groups Seek Friends in New Majority

Posted April 6, 2007 at 6:02pm

When Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) set up a leadership political action committee in June, the first contribution that rolled in, according to federal filings, came from a committee that is fiercely opposed to Fidel Castro.

Wasserman Schultz takes the same hardline position on Cuba policy, but the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC’s donation was notable because it marked a shift in giving patterns. The Cuba Democracy PAC in the 2004 cycle gave just 29 percent to Democrats, but in 2006 it upped that to 44 percent, according to federal election data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

While the idea of opening up trade with Cuba and expanding American travel to the island has supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle — and from big business groups — advocates of lifting the longtime embargo on the communist country say the Democratic majority will boost their chances of getting what they want.

But the well-funded anti-Castro community — and its Democratic supporters such as Wasserman Schultz — has retooled its advocacy and fundraising to put the brakes on any change in policy. And lobbyists on both sides say the backdrop of the presidential race could affect whatever Congress actually does on Cuba.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a member of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and executive director of the lobbying group Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., said when it comes to freshman Members, his group frames the debate as a human rights issue.

“I’m excited. New Members and new minds are a great thing,” Claver-Carone said. “Especially people that come from the midlands and all they hear is the farm bureaus saying we need to lift the embargo. So it’s great to be able to tell our side of the story.”

Claver-Carone said his side looks to leaders on the issue such as Wasserman Schultz, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and newly elected Cuban-American Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) to woo their fellow Democrats.

“The Cuban government engages in gross human rights violations,” said Wasserman Schultz, who said that as a Jewish person she feels a kinship with Cubans living under the Castro regime. “We should not be engaging in trade or allowing free travel back and forth to a country that abuses its people.” (Currently Castro’s brother, Raul, is serving as acting president because of Fidel Castro’s health problems).

Wasserman Schultz said she arrived at that opinion long before the campaign contributions rolled in, and she added that her position is out of respect for human rights, not political necessity. Her Democrats Win Seats PAC has not publicly been linked to her, but she confirmed her connection with it in an interview last week and said it was set up to support Democratic candidates.

The DWS is one of numerous PACs that Members have set up to collect additional cash from supporters that they can dole out to other candidates. Members do not need to disclose their affiliation with the PACs. The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC has given a total of $22,000 to Wasserman Schultz’s leadership PAC and campaign committee. The anti-Castro PAC also has given to numerous other leadership PACs, including those of Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

Claver-Carone said his message to Democrats — who seek to improve labor standards in trade agreements with other countries — is that Cuba’s labor standards are not up to par. “That’s a very compelling argument,” he said.

Frank Calzon, chairman of the Center for a Free Cuba, has picked up that theme, too. “The way Cuban workers are treated in Cuba, they have a lack of collective bargaining and a prohibition on striking,” said Calzon, who does not want the embargo lifted until the Cuban government changes. He said the Cuban government provides diplomatic support to anti-Israeli lobbying interests. “The people who want to change policy on Cuba don’t want to talk about those things,” he said.

Mavis Anderson, a senior associate with the Latin America Working Group, said her organization wants to expand trade and travel relations between the United States and Cuba. She said committee chairmen such as House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who has introduced a bill to lift the travel ban for all Americans, have altered the landscape because GOP leaders and committee chairmen were strongly pro-embargo.

“That’s why we feel that with Congress and the chairpeople being pro-engagement rather than isolationist, we feel we have a real chance,” Anderson said.

The U.S.-Cuba Democracy group, she added, has donated significantly to Democrats and Republicans “and they have a very tenacious lobbyist” in Claver-Carone. “I think they have very energetically stepped it up both in their fundraising and Hill work,” she said. “The pro-engagement side doesn’t have that kind of old money behind it.”

Kirby Jones, the founder and president of the U.S. Cuba Trade Association, which represents groups and companies such as Cargill and Perfected Foods Corp. that want to expand trade with Cuba, said his group is lobbying for several bills this Congress including the bipartisan one backed by Rangel that would open up Cuba to all U.S. travelers and an energy measure that would allow exploration in Cuban waters.

“Our premise is normalization of commercial relations between Cuba and the U.S., free and open trade and commerce,” Jones said. The current Congress has changed the landscape of this debate dramatically, he added. “When Cuba bills passed in the past, the leadership, especially [former Rep. Tom] DeLay (R-Texas), would never allow it or they struck the Cuban language out of the conference committee.”

Calzon said when it comes to political clout, his big-business opponents such as Jones’ group and its members have plenty. “People say the Cuban-American community is strong, but at the same time, the most important obstacle to normalizing trade is not Miami but Havana,” Calzon said.

The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC has gotten its share of criticism from the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which last year filed a complaint against the PAC with the Federal Election Commission. CREW alleged that one of its contributors is a foreign national and that a nonprofit organization is inappropriately funding Claver-Carone’s lobbying group and the operations of the PAC.

Claver-Carone said that as far as he knows the complaint still is under review by the FEC. But, he said, “We register and dot our i’s and cross our t’s.”

On the presidential side, Claver-Carone said his organization’s focus primarily is on Congress, but he said that with few exceptions — such as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — the presidential hopefuls from both parties have not indicated support for lessening sanctions. Even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a GOP presidential candidate, “had the right intentions” when he botched a Spanish phrase to Cuban Americans, Claver-Carone said. “I’m sure that Mr. Romney has learned from that slip-up,” he added.

Ignacio Sanchez, a lobbyist at DLA Piper who represents General Cigar — whose Dominican-made brands include Partagas and Punch — said presidential candidates in the Senate will be able to use the chamber as a platform to define their positions going into the election.

“Any candidate who has a vote is not going to come out in favor of lifting the embargo because it could cost them votes in Florida,” said Sanchez, a Cuban American whose cigar client does not support lifting the embargo absent a free-market economy in Cuba.

But Florida voters are not the only interests competing for presidential candidates’ attention on the Cuba issue. Agriculture companies and the tourism industry are mounting pressure on the other side. “How the candidates in office navigate those three competing interests will be very important to how they’re perceived in the community,” Sanchez said.