Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

[i]AQ[/i] talks to Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), who predicts that the Senate will lift the U.S. travel ban to Cuba this congressional session.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R.-IN), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is one of Washington’s fiercest critics of U.S.-Cuba policy. The most senior Republican in the U.S. Senate talks to AQ about lifting the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, promoting trade while protecting U.S. farmers and the changing role of the OAS.

Americas Quarterly: You are one of the co-sponsors of the bipartisan Senate bill S.1089 (in addition to S.428) to lift travel restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba and facilitate U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. Could you explain why you are co-sponsoring this legislation now and what effects the proposed changes would have on what has been, and remains, the central U.S. focus on Cuba: human rights conditions and repression under the Castro regime?

Senator Lugar: I have long believed in the diplomatic value of citizen-to-citizen exchanges and have supported measures in the past to open up travel to Cuba for all Americans. There is growing congressional advocacy for change in U.S. policy toward Cuba from both Republicans and Democrats.

Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid in South Africa. After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of “bringing democracy to the Cuban people,” while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba’s impoverished population. The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. Nevertheless, we must deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests. Trade and travel are at the core of effective reform.

AQ: What do you believe is the likely schedule for the discussion and vote on either of these bills?

Lugar: I hope during this session of Congress.

AQ: On June 21, 2004, you gave a warmly received speech to the Organization of American States (OAS) calling for a new agenda for U.S. engagement in the region on social development. What more can the administration of President Barack Obama do to build on those ideas?

Lugar: Many of the passages from my speech before the OAS still ring true today. For instance, we still need to address poverty and economic dislocation in Latin America and the Caribbean. With the current economic downturn those problems are likely to worsen. By helping to improve basic living conditions in the poorest countries in the region, we will be creating the building blocks upon which democracy, markets and jobs can flourish.

Another passage from that speech which remains true is that even as we embrace trade as a tool of development, we must pay closer attention to preparing nations to trade successfully. Trade agreements that lower trade barriers can provide a necessary foundation for economic growth, but other ingredients are needed as well. Successful trade requires hard work to establish and even harder work to maintain. As we move forward on trade preference programs and on the pending trade agreements with Panama and Colombia—as I hope the Obama administration will do—we need to increase cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean governments and the private sector to maximize trade-capacity building programs that create jobs and train young people for the jobs of the future.

The end of many military dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere during the 1970s and 1980s was one of the most important developments of the late twentieth century. The generals no longer rule in Latin America. The OAS deserves ample praise for being a key participant in fostering the wave of democracy that swept over our hemisphere, but important challenges remain. The OAS’s job is by no means over. Here at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we must be candid: democracy is still being tested in the hemisphere. The OAS has built an invaluable democratic patrimony that it cannot afford to squander at this critical juncture.

AQ: Countries like Brazil and Colombia have made great strides in developing the technology and capacity to produce biofuels from sugarcane and other products. Their success complements your commitment to enhanced green technology and global development. Yet access to the U.S. market is limited by U.S. government subsidies for corn and corn-based ethanol and by tariffs on sugar imports. How can the U.S. address the domestic contradictions in policy between protecting the U.S. domestic market and achieving the broader goals of sustainable economic development and lowering our carbon footprint?

Lugar: As an Indiana farmer and small businessman I have always embraced the economic opportunities made possible through free and open trade. As a U.S. Senator I have strongly supported efforts to open markets for U.S. products, but also recognize that our own policies may inhibit development and international partnerships. I support reforming U.S. agricultural policies that are designed to insulate sugar and other products from world market prices. I also support reforming federal support for biofuels production and the phase-out of tariffs on ethanol. While these policies may be reformed independent of other actions, it is most likely that progress could be made as a component of larger bilateral or international agreements.

AQ: In September 2008, you issued a statement urging the passage of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement (FTA). At the time you called for its passage in a lame-duck session of Congress, after the presidential elections. Obviously that did not occur. Is there movement on the Colombia FTA in the Senate now? What do you believe would be a realistic timetable for discussion and a vote on the FTA and the likely result?

Lugar: I support the U.S-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. This trade agreement would benefit both Americans and Colombians. Its passage would provide new markets for US exporters and additional jobs for US companies as well as job sand income for hundreds of thousands of Colombians. I look forward to its ratification during this Congress.


Jason Marczak is deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as senior editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Tags: Cuba, Richard Lugar, U.S. Congress
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter