Meet the GOP Congressmen Who Could Sell Trump on Cuba
Those hoping that President Donald Trump will continue his predecessor’s engagement with Cuba have found some unexpected allies.
Republican Representatives Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Tom Emmer of Minnesota and Mark Sanford of South Carolina – all vocal supporters of the new president – have each this year re-introduced bills they wrote during the Obama administration aimed at upending two pillars of the U.S.’ embargo on Cuba: travel and trade.
“The Republican Party has been on the wrong side of this issue for a long time,” Emmer told AQ, referring to restrictions the U.S. places on exports and travel to Cuba. “This is a potential market for my state and our country when it comes to agricultural products that we manufacture.”
Emmer has sponsored the Cuba Trade Act of 2017, which would remove various barriers to trade between the two countries, including restrictions on direct shipping, remittances and business transactions.
Crawford, too, has introduced legislation aimed at increasing trade ties with the island. The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act would lift credit restrictions on agricultural producers looking to export to Cuba, such as credit transactions on rice and poultry; he sees financing agricultural exports as a conversation starter that doesn't require preconditions.
“These are simply business transactions that meet basic human needs, and that is food … the Cuban people are ready to embrace change, I think they have a hunger, literally and figuratively, for quality American food products,” the congressman told AQ.
Crawford and Emmer emphasized that free markets are a fundamental American value, and noted that increased trade with Cuba would represent both an opportunity for U.S. business and a chance for U.S. citizens to build and strengthen relationships with the Cuban people.
For Sanford, whose Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 would remove current travel restrictions to the island, doing away with polices that aren’t having their intended consequences seems like an obvious win. “I think we ought to review all laws, rules and regulations that don’t work,” Sanford told AQ, adding that restrictions on travel ran counter to American values.
“Fundamentally, each one of us has the right to travel, it’s constitutional, it goes with American freedom... And yet Cuba is the only country on earth for which there are regulations in travel. You could go to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria; you could go to a bunch of hot spots around the world. The trip might not go well, but you could go. That’s not the case with Cuba,” Sanford said.
As the Trump administration prepares for a “full review” of the U.S. policy toward Cuba, all three congressmen expressed optimism that a gradual lifting of restrictions could continue under the new administration.
“(The president) has stated many times – and I agree – that bilateral trade agreements are the best trade agreements because (they’re) easier to manage, easier to enforce … and they’re more transparent,” Crawford said. “I think he’ll look at this as an opportunity to engage in bilateral trade that’s meaningful for both, but a good deal for the United States.”
While recent polls suggest that a majority of Americans, including Cuban-Americans, support an end to the embargo, all three lawmakers expressed skepticism that an outright lifting of the ban would make it through Congress this year. But incremental reductions in the restrictions on U.S.-Cuba ties would likely find bipartisan support, they said. All three suggested that the embargo on Cuba was doing more harm to U.S. interests than good.
“I would have fallen in more within the Cold Warrior mentality when I was first elected and sworn into Congress,” Emmer told AQ. But after a trip to the island in 2015, where he saw a quickly growing entrepreneurial class and a hunger for stronger ties with the U.S., the congressman said he found his views changing, noting that the embargo has provided the Cuban government with a scapegoat for shortages rather than spurring economic change.
Crawford echoed that sentiment. “It’s hard to defend this policy when you see that nothing good has resulted in this 55 years since,” he said. “It has served as nothing more than a propaganda tool for the current regime in Cuba.”
Whether it’s trade, national and regional security, freedom of movement, or promoting human rights on the island, Emmer, Crawford and Sanford all noted that by sitting on the sidelines, the U.S. is missing out on a vital opportunity to engage with Cuba as it prepares for its own transition in 2018, when President Raúl Castro plans to step down.
And while Emmer said he couldn't "put himself in the shoes of a Cuban-American patriot, whose family lost property, (who) was brutalized by the (Castro) regime,” all three Republican congressmen put in no uncertain terms that they think Congress has an opportunity to change U.S.’ Cuba policy for the better.
In Sanford's words, “Fidel Castro died, and America’s policy towards Cuba ought to die with him.”
Garcia is a production editor for AQ