Ninety miles off the Florida coast is an island nation of 11 million people badly in need of the Midwest’s agricultural products, equipment and expertise. So it’s fitting that our region’s political and business leaders are at the forefront of a timely debate over ending a Cold War relic — the 54-year-old U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.
This month, Minnesota’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, introduced the “Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2015.” If passed, it would repeal or amend the long-entrenched laws that have restricted trade between the two nations during the Castro regime’s repressive rule. The bill’s introduction comes on the heels of President Obama’s historic use of executive power in December to re-establish diplomatic relations and ease travel restrictions. But congressional action is needed to end the embargo. Klobuchar’s bill is a sensible start toward making that happen.
After more than a half century of hoping that political and economic isolation would loosen the Castro brothers’ grip on the island, it’s time to acknowledge that a fresh approach is needed. The embargo’s demise would not be a victory for the aging Fidel and Raul Castro. Instead it would deprive them of their favorite scapegoat — the United States — for Communist policies that only brought hunger, hardship and repression.
Ending the embargo would also foster trade and cultural ties that would empower Cubans to push for reforms while opening up new markets for both American and Cuban goods.
That’s why the debate over Klobuchar’s bill shouldn’t be whether to lift the embargo, but rather on how best to do it. That discussion should include the perspectives of Cuban policy experts, American business leaders and those who are members of the influential community of Cuban-Americans with family ties to the island.
Unfortunately, committee hearings on Cuban trade relations in the Republican-controlled U.S. House have so far been dominated by anti-Communist hard-liners and have failed to yield to updated views and information.
Klobuchar’s legislation, which has two Republican cosponsors, takes a bold and different tack. It proposes an all-at-once approach to ending the embargo, though it “does not repeal human rights or property claims provisions of previous legislation,’’ as the bill’s congressional summary states.
Proponents of this full-bore approach include an influential coalition of agricultural industry interests, including Minnesota-based Cargill Inc. Cargill executive Devry Boughner Vorwerk is the chair of new agricultural industry coalition pushing to swiftly end the trade embargo. A key reason: Competitors from other countries are moving quickly into Cuba.
How quickly the embargo should be lifted is a critical question without a clear answer. In contrast to the agricultural coalition, experts such as Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics advocate incrementally lifting it. That would give the Cuban economy time to acclimate and prevent it from ending up like Russia, he said, where a few wealthy and connected interests dominate the post-Communist economy.
A slower approach also would allow the United States to attach conditions — such as human-rights improvements — to the new policy. That could help satisfy Cuban policy hard-liners and potentially improve the legislation’s chances of passing.
Klobuchar, who often pushes relatively noncontroversial legislation, is to be commended for taking on such a divisive issue. Forging the consensus needed for passage will be difficult, but this is a battle worthy of her skills.