Sen. Amy Klobuchar is emerging as a leader on Capitol Hill in the push to normalize relations with Cuba, introducing a bill to lift the decades-old trade embargo against the country last week, and now, spending four days on a trade mission in Havana.
The Minnesota Democrat returned Tuesday with fresh hope for renewed ties with the island nation. Oh yes, and a few Cuban cigars.
"I bought a few personally for my friends," she said in an interview. "And now everyone will be my friend."
Klobuchar joined fellow Democratic Sens. Mark Warner, of Virginia, and Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, on the trip. They met with Cuba's foreign minister, trade and agriculture officials, and with the U.S. consulate general in Cuba. She said Cuba has a growing number of small businesses that have broken off from state-owned companies — including car companies and clothing manufacturers — and that could benefit from American exports.
"This creates a lot of opportunities," she said. "They want more sewing machines, they want more agricultural equipment."
Currently, because of existing exceptions to the trade embargo for food, Minnesota is exporting $20 million worth of goods to Cuba. Klobuchar said that with the recent loosening of restrictions by President Barack Obama, she expects that number to double.
"And then the hope is we'll go even beyond that by lifting the embargo," she said.
Klobuchar was the lead sponsor of legislation introduced Thursday that would do just that. The "Freedom to Export to Cuba Act" would repeal the original 1961 authorization to establish the embargo and subsequent laws requiring its enforcement, as well as other restrictions banning transactions and direct shipping between the countries.
During her trip, Klobuchar said she and her colleagues visited Cuba's new deepwater port in Mariel, which is expected to replace the port in old Havana as the country's major shipping hub.
Still, she said the country needs to upgrade much of its infrastructure.
"They're starting to renovate some of these older buildings, more in the old Havana area, that are absolutely beautiful, the old architecture from a century ago. It's really something," said Klobuchar, who stayed in an older hotel in Havana. "But there's still so much work that needs to be done on infrastructure."
And she said the Cuban government needs to move more toward democratic governance.
A new round of talks between Cuban and American officials seeking to normalize relations between thetwo countries is next week. Obama announced the push to restore relations on Dec. 17, a date that
Klobuchar said Cubans cited regularly during her travels.
"It may not be a date that everyone in America remembers," Klobuchar said. "But to them, every one of the people we met used the Dec. 17 date, because that was the day the two countries agreed to start opening up relations."
She was also surprised that they recognized her and knew about the bill she introduced last week.
"I was shocked that everyone in Cuba — from tour guides to people — that chapter-and-verse knew about the bill," she said. "They had seen my picture in the news. It was a big deal for them."