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Rubio And Cruz Won’t Be Able To Reverse U.S. Overture To Cuba

Pity Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

The two Cuban-American senators are relatively young, in their mid-40s. And their political rise coincides with a change in U.S.-Cuban relations that neither particularly welcomes.

Cruz and Rubio will likely be in office when full trade relations with Cuba are finally restored. Though both are vying for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s unlikely that either will be in the White House when that evolution occurs. That’s just as well, as both have taken the firmly anti-engagement posture of their Republican elders.

Yet the winds of U.S. commerce are blowing strong against the famous seawall protecting Havana, the Malecón. And these are strong gusts, able to topple the Cold War-era groundings of Rubio and Cruz.

The coming year will be crucial.

January 1 will mark the 57th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. A year ago, President Barack Obama’s announcement to press for normalized relations kicked off a flurry of activity. Much of it was organizing by business interests with strong Republican ties, eager for Cuban markets.

The U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, a group of corporations and trade groups, officially stepped forward to press for lifting the embargo in the month after Obama’s announcement. A bipartisan committee was organized in the House to look at normalizing relations. In May, Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In August, in another milestone, the U.S. Embassy was ceremonially reopened in Havana.

Governors of numerous states have sent exploratory trade delegations to Cuba, especially those eager to increase agricultural exports. The most recent trip had Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visiting in November. Cuba imports nearly 80 percent of its food.

Despite the movement, it will be impossible to fully unwind the bureaucratic stalemates between our two countries quickly.

How much can be accomplished between now and the end of Obama’s term is crucial. As with immigration reform and so many other measures, there is only so much Obama can do through executive action and policy change. Congressional cooperation will be necessary to lift the embargo and to manage the details of banking and a related thorny issue: the nearly $8 billion in claims (including interest) of U.S. corporations and citizens whose assets and property were seized by Castro after the revolution. Those losses were a key reason for the embargo in the first place.

In early December, the first talks were held in Havana by State Department officials to settle the claims. Early reporting indicated they didn’t get very far. Some experts have speculated that the Castro regime threw down its’ own counterclaim, asking for reparations for the economic costs of the trade embargo, which Cuba has put at more than $100 billion.

In another year, the U.S. will have a new president and it is unlikely to be one as headstrong as Obama has been about opening to Cuba, even if it is Hillary Clinton.

Rubio, Cruz and other Republicans can be counted on to stall the progress that Obama has made. But they won’t completely stop it.

The crux of their opposition is dismal human rights record of Fidel and Raul Castro. Rubio and Cruz don’t sidestep the jailing of dissidents and other human rights abuses as so many Americans, particularly business interests, conveniently do. Yet they differ from many of their middle-aged Cuban-American contemporaries, who increasingly support lifting the embargo.

The two senators have come of political age in a fast-changing era for Cuba-U.S. relations.

Regardless of who prevails in the GOP presidential nomination, Cuba is no longer a geopolitical threat. And in American politics, the interests of business come first.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.)

(c) 2015, THE KANSAS CITY STAR. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC

Photo: A protester holds up an American and a Cuban flag in Miami, Florida on December 20, 2014 (AFP Photo/Joe Raedle)

Obama Takes ‘A Sledgehammer’ To Cuba Embargo

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — What is commonly known as the trade embargo on Cuba is still on the books, as it has been for some five decades.

But for companies from around the United States — whether a package-delivery firm from Tennessee, rice producers from Arkansas, a heavy-equipment maker from Illinois or a software developer from Washington state — the barriers to trade with the untapped market 90 miles from Florida are getting lower and lower.

The Obama administration on Friday announced it was moving to further change U.S.-Cuba trade rules, ushering in what experts called a major development that would significantly open the door to expanded business on the island.

It’s a continuation of the actions President Barack Obama and his administration have taken since December, when he announced a major thaw in the decades-long freeze with Cuba. But for American companies and the trade experts who work with them, the announced moves are a big boost in their hopes to _ someday _ have full and free trade with Cuba.

“There remains much of the embargo to be dismantled,” said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who estimated that maybe 40 percent of the embargo has been disrupted by the president’s regulatory actions.

Obama did not merely chip away at the embargo, Kavulich added. “He used a sledgehammer,” he said.

Kavulich considers the changes announced Friday to be “the most comprehensive trade and investment changes to the United States relationship with the Republic of Cuba in decades.”

The rules will be formally published and take effect Monday. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said they underscore “the administration’s commitment to promote constructive change for the Cuban people.”

“A stronger, more open U.S.-Cuba relationship has the potential to create economic opportunities for both Americans and Cubans alike,” he added in a statement. “By further easing these sanctions, the United States is helping to support the Cuban people in their effort to achieve the political and economic freedom necessary to build a democratic, prosperous and stable Cuba.”

The rules were greeted warmly by many business interests, who see greater leeway to boost sales and travel to Cuba. But they were instantly lambasted by some lawmakers, particularly those in South Florida who both represent and come from the Cuban-American community.

That said, the opposition to Obama’s Cuba opening hasn’t been able to stop the president. While experts on both sides of the issue say the embargo as now on the books is politically safe in the short term, there are administrative actions the president can _ and has _ taken to further his goals.

Among the most significant of Friday’s changes, as announced by the Treasury and Commerce departments, are those involving personal travel, personal remittances and business activity.

On travel: Earlier changes had permitted official government business and some educational and other activities. Now, a close relative also will be allowed to visit or accompany authorized travelers for additional educational activities, journalistic activity, professional research, religious activities and humanitarian projects.

On remittances to Cubans: Current rules said they could be no more than $2,000 per quarter. That limit will be removed entirely.

Easing restrictions on business activity by U.S. firms is among the most significant changes.

“The rules in January were important _ they established the precedent,” said Robert L. Muse, a Washington-based lawyer and expert on Cuba trade. “But it was more of a beachhead, and it was a bit murky. Now they are engaging the business community in a way that’s going to be interesting and important to them. It begins to give them some real commercial traction.”

Muse said that companies engaged in exporting authorized items to Cuba will be able to establish, maintain and operate physical premises in Cuba.

“Maintaining a presence is brand new — that’s the big further step they have taken here,” Muse said. “The intention is to bring American businesses to the island.”

An example, he said, would be an agricultural company allowed to export to Cuba that would now be able to establish a sales office on the island.

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Medical student Electo Rossel, 20, wearing a shirt with a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama, listens to music at the Malecon seafront outside the U.S. embassy (not pictured) in Havana, Cuba, in this file photo taken August 14, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/Files

Bill To Boost Trade With Cuba Faces Long Odds, Despite Win

By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Legislation designed to boost agricultural trade with Cuba passed out of a Senate committee last week, joining a separate bill that would ease restrictions on travel to the island.

But for those interested in a return to full trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, the actions last week represent only a sliver of hope that the mood of Congress is thawing as much as President Barack Obama would like.

“I’m more optimistic that the pressure is increasing to do something in Congress,” said Carl Meacham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who serves as director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But what happens because of that pressure is dependent on a range of issues — from the attitude of Senate leadership to the dynamics of presidential politics, he said. And then the measures will have to go through the House of Representatives as well.

“And I don’t see the House going the way of the Senate,” Meacham said.

The legislation last week was sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and represents one of the strategies lawmakers are employing to boost trade with Cuba.

In December, leaders in the U.S. and Cuba announced a thawing of relations between the two nations after decades of limited trade, travel and diplomacy. While some aspects of trade and travel with the island nation have been loosened, many other restrictions remain.

Lawmakers are pushing to free travel and trade, while others — led by South Florida lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate — have marshaled forces into a camp dedicated to seeing current restrictions stay put.

The Heitkamp legislation could thread the needle between pro- and anti-change forces, Meacham said.

Her legislation, which was attached to an appropriations bill, would ease a legal prohibition on providing credit for exports to Cuba. That, Heitkamp said, is the biggest barrier that North Dakota and other farm states face when trying to export to the island nation.

“As the U.S. normalizes relations with Cuba, we need to make sure American farmers are able to access that market,” she said in a statement.

The legislation would modify current law by lifting the ban on private banks and companies offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba. Currently, U.S. exports to Cuba require cash payments up front.

The legislation was introduced with Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas, who represents the views of many farm state lawmakers of both parties in seeing trade with Cuba as a potential market for their states’ goods.

Meacham, who just returned from a trip to Cuba, said the push for agriculture trade highlights the ability of U.S. farmers to efficiently help feed the Cuban people, and the fact that a lot of agricultural states are represented by Republicans.

“I think it’s an indication that the assumed Republican opposition to normalization is fast crumbling,” he said. “Travel and agriculture are where you are finding the most converts now.”

But the strategy of attaching legislation to appropriations bills might merely represent a strategy for pro-normalization lawmakers who don’t ultimately have the support they need to pass more ambitious legislation to completely end the trade embargo with Cuba.

In the congressional appropriations process, bills that make it through the House or the Senate with amendments intact still have to go to a House-Senate conference committee, where differences are hammered out. And even if there are pro-Cuba normalization measures on Senate bills, there are anti-Cuba normalization measures on House bills.

“Depending on the political will of each side, these riders could start canceling each other out,” said Jason I. Poblete, a former Republican congressional staffer who is an international regulatory lawyer with Poblete Tamargo LLP.

Asked about the Senate action, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, noted action at both the committee level and on the House floor to roll back the Obama Cuba opening.

“Time will tell whether the U.S. Senate, including its three Cuban-American members that fiercely oppose President Obama’s Cuba policy, will have an opportunity to vote on those few provisions inserted into one Senate appropriations bill,” he said in a statement to McClatchy. “The House is on record solidly rejecting President Obama’s Cuba policy, but we have yet to hear from the full Senate.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: The Cuban national flag is seen raised over their new embassy in Washington July 20, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

U.S. And Cuba Agree To Open Embassies, Restore Diplomatic Relations

By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — After 50 years of diplomatic standoff, the U.S. and Cuba plan to announce Wednesday that they will establish formal diplomatic relations and open embassies in each other’s capitals, a senior U.S. administration official said.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry plan to address the decision publicly on Wednesday, as the two nations move to open the door to a new relationship of trade, travel and tourism.

The announcement follows months of talks between the two countries, after a historic decision in December by both that they would release prisoners as a good-faith move toward melting their Cold War freeze.

All spring, negotiators from both sides have been talking about sending ambassadors, lifting restrictions on diplomatic personnel and opening the way to financial and technological deals.

On Tuesday, senior advisers to Obama said the conversations had gone well and that the two sides were now prepared for the much more serious commitment of opening embassies.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Day Donaldson via Flicrk