A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has proposed legislation to end the trade embargo against Cuba. The “Freedom to Export to Cuba Act” would rescind John F. Kennedy’s 1961 presidential authorization curtailing trade with the island nation and lift subsequent restrictions on the sale of U.S. goods imposed by other presidents and Congress over the last 58 years.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the bill on February 8; it was co-signed by Mike Enzi (R-WY), and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who has a long track record of efforts to improve and normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.
“Our bipartisan legislation will finally turn the page on the failed policy of isolation and build on the progress we have made to open up engagement with Cuba by ending the embargo once and for all,” Klobuchar noted in a statement. “... [L]ifting the trade embargo will open the door to a huge export market, create jobs here at home and support both the American and Cuban economies.”
Klobuchar introduced a variation of the Freedom to Export Act in 2015 and again in 2017. Shortly after reintroducing the bill last week, the senator announced her candidacy for the 2020 presidential election, ensuring that the future of the Cuba embargo will become a topic of debate during the campaign season.
In the aftermath of the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, President Kennedy imposed severe restrictions on trade with Cuba—but not before he dispatched his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to buy more than 1,000 H. Upmann Cuban cigars while it was still legal to do so.
The embargo remained at the discretion of successive presidents until 1996 when President Bill Clinton agreed to have the trade sanctions codified into Congressional law after the Cuban air force shot down two small Cessnas belonging to the anti-Castro organization, Brothers to the Rescue. Clinton and President Barack Obama both used their presidential authority to create exemptions to the statutory embargo laws. But for almost 60 years, the embargo—known in Cuba as el bloqueo—has remained the leading symbol of U.S. policy toward the Cuba.
The renewed effort in the Senate to normalize commercial relations with Cuba comes as diplomatic relations, restored during the Obama era, have deteriorated under the administration of President Donald Trump. The ongoing crisis in Venezuela has raised bilateral tensions with the post-Castro government of Miguel Díaz-Canel.
“The time has come to liberate Venezuela from Cuba,” Vice President Mike Pence declared at an opposition rally in Miami on February 1.
As part of those efforts, the Trump administration is reported to be readying additional sanctions against Cuba that could severely impact its already struggling economy. According to the Wall Street Journal, the State Department will soon put Cuba back on its “States Sponsor of Terrorism” list—a designation that Obama ended in 2015 as part of his policy of positive engagement with Cuba.
Being on the list—which currently includes North Korea, Syria, Iran and Sudan—carries a series of economic sanctions, as well as a stigma of danger likely to deter future U.S. travelers from visiting Cuba.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan put Cuba on the list to punish the Castro regime for supporting revolutionary movements in Central America. U.S. officials told the Miami Herald that the administration would cite Cuba’s support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as a rationale for re-placing Cuba on the terrorism list.
The Trump White House also reportedly plans to allow U.S. citizens to file suits in U.S. courts to regain properties expropriated after the Cuban revolution—a punitive provision contained in the 1996 Helms-Burton bill. Since the Clinton era, every U.S. president has waived this provision to avoid conflict with allied countries such as Canada, Spain, France, Brazil, Mexico and others that the chaos of litigation against foreign companies with investments in Cuba will inevitably generate.
“The [Cuban] economy is going to get worse than it is already due to the Venezuela crisis,” one European commercial attaché in Havana told the Reuters news agency last week, “and Trump’s new threats are already scaring people away.”
Such additional sanctions would undercut some of the economic advances in bilateral relations that would come with lifting the embargo, should the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act ever be passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump. But Congressional action to lift the embargo would send a substantive signal to the White House that there is little political appetite for returning to a past era of U.S. regime-change efforts in Cuba.
“Decades after the end of the Cold War we continue to impose punitive sanctions against Cuba, a tiny island neighbor that poses no threat to us,” Sen. Leahy noted last week. "After more than half a century, the embargo has achieved none of its objectives.”