As the United States continues to update its approach towards Cuba for the 21st century, support for this process is gathering momentum across the country. After fifty years of a failed foreign policy on Cuba, Americans of all political persuasions agree it’s time to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
They may be loud, but the hardliners on Cuba are outnumbered. At some point in the near future, these leaders will have to come to terms with the fact that maintaining the embargo is increasingly at odds with what their constituencies want and what is best for the United States.
This position is supported by recent public opinion surveys, which show that the vast majority of Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba. A July 20 Pew Research Center survey found that 72 percent of Americans support ending the embargo, including 59 percent of Republicans. What’s more, the Pew poll found a 15 percent increase in support for scrapping the embargo among conservative Republicans from January to July 2015, making them the fastest-growing demographic to support widening trade with Cuba.
The trend is playing out in Congress as well. A new bipartisan Cuba Working Group (CWG) was established in the House of Representatives in December 2015, comprised of 18 Republican and Democratic members of Congress committed to ending the embargo and strengthening relations with Cuba.
As the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has noted, this is one of the strongest indications yet that support for ending the embargo is growing in Congress. “The establishment of a bi-partisan Cuba working group in this Congress is a game-changer,” said Marc Hanson, Senior Associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “The House Cuba working group will be instrumental in translating the overwhelming public support for ending the embargo on Cuba into legislative initiatives that can pass in Congress.”
In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi announcing the group’s formation, the steering committee members of the CWG described their mission in ambitious terms:
Increasingly, the American people are indicating their desire for a new, more pragmatic approach to Cuba. More people are traveling from the U.S. to Cuba, more businesses are looking for opportunity on the island, and more sectors are eager for trade. The bi-partisan Cuba Working Group will promote a U.S.-Cuba policy that reflects the interests of the American people in engagement with Cuba.
Members of the bi-partisan group include: Tom Emmer (R-MN), Kathy Castor (D-FL), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Rick Crawford (R-AR), Reid Ribble (R-WI), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Sam Farr (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Ted Poe (R-TX), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Mark Sanford (R-SC), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Darin LaHood (R-IL), Charlie Rangel (D-NY) Rodney Davis (R-IL), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Ralph Abraham (R-LA) and Cheri Bustos (D-IL).
Other recent examples of legislative amendments and bills meant to bring outdated U.S.-Cuba policy in line with present-day needs and realities include:
U.S. House of Representatives
- The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (H.R. 664), allows all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba (12 Republican backers).
- The Cuba Trade Act of 2015 (H.R. 3238), would allow U.S. businesses in the private sector to trade with Cuba without restrictions (11 Republican backers).
- The Cuba Digital and Telecommunications Advancement Act -Cuba DATA Act-(H.R. 3055), would allow U.S. telecommunications and internet companies to provide services to the island (3 Republican backers).
- The Cuba Agriculture Exports Act (H.R. 3687), would allow credit to be used for U.S. agricultural export to Cuba and permit U.S. investment in privately owned Cuban agricultural businesses (20 Republican backers).
- The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on January 29, 2015.
- The Cuba Data Act, introduced by Representative Kevin Cramer (R-ND), on July 14, 2015
- Amendments that would effectively lift the travel ban to Cuba and ease other restrictions, introduced by Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS), John Boozman (R-AK) and passed by the GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee on July 23, 2015
Growing U.S. Support
Their position is backed by public opinion surveys, which show that the vast majority of the United States supports normalizing relations with Cuba. A July 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 72 percent of Americans support ending the embargo, including 59 percent of Republicans. The poll also found a 15 percent increase in support for scrapping the embargo among conservative Republicans from January to July of last year, making them the fastest-growing demographic to support increased trade with Cuba.
The Cuban-American community has historically opposed changes in relation with Cuba. However, recent trends demonstrate that the Cuban-American community is changing its position. Cuban-American support for ending the embargo surged in the past two decades, from just 13 percent in 1991 to 44 percent in 2011.
Most importantly, a December 2015 Bendixen & Amandi poll showed that a majority of Cuban-Americans (53 percent) now support ending the embargo, and 56 percent support diplomatic recognition of Cuba. This is up from 44 percent in 2014, illustrating that this support is growing.
Earlier this month, Rep. David Jolly, the leading Republican candidate to replace Senator Marco Rubio in the Senate from the State of Florida, co-sponsored the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.
Carlos Gutierrez, former Secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush, and a Cuban American himself, applauded Rep. Jolly’s leadership, saying: “His decision to sign on to the Freedom to Travel to Cuba shows foresight and courage. It is wrong that US citizens can’t travel as tourists to Cuba. Our Cuba travel policy is outdated. It’s time for American and Cuban people to build understanding and friendships.”
Trade With Cuba: New Markets, New Opportunities
Both countries stand to gain from expanding trade opportunities. In addition to improving the standard of living on the island, ending the embargo will allow American farmers, ranchers, and businesses to break into a new market for their products. The concrete benefits of doing so are well-documented:
- Cuba is just 90 miles south of the United States border and imports about 80 percent of its food, making it a natural market for American agricultural products. Before the embargo, U.S. products accounted for 70 percent of Cuba’s imports. The U.S. embargo has allowed industry competitors in places like China, Brazil and the European Union to eclipse U.S. companies in trade with Cuba.
- The cost to U.S. exporters of maintaining the embargo has been estimated at around $1.2 billion per year, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC).
- Cuba’s per capita rice consumption is the highest in the Western Hemisphere, and rice is seen as a vital part of the Cuban diet. USITC estimates that, with trade restrictions on Cuba removed, U.S. rice exports to the island could reach $40 to $60 million in two years.
- According to the head of U.S. Wheat Associates, the United States could supply 80–90 percent of Cuba’s wheat imports if Cuba were to resume purchases of U.S. wheat.
- Merchandise exports to Cuba could reach $4.3 billion annually if the embargo were lifted, according to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
- An analysis by Texas A&M University found that opening trade with Cuba could create 6,000 new jobs in the United States. The U.S. agricultural industry stands to benefit immensely from scrapping the failed embargo with Cuba, where there is especially strong demand for U.S. grains like rice, wheat and corn, as well as fruit, livestock, and processed food products.
- The benefits of increased trade and investment in Cuba extend beyond the agricultural sector. It would bring a surge of new business to ports and airports, particularly in southeastern states.
Support Across Civil Society, Business, Agricultural, and Faith Voices
Removing restrictions on U.S.-Cuba trade has broad support among a growing number of individuals and organizations in the United States, including:
Bill Reinsch, President of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC):
“Restoring normal trade and diplomacy between the United States and Cuba serves our strategic interests in the hemisphere and can only benefit the Cuban people and support human rights and individual liberty on the island,”
Jay Nixon, Republican Governor of Missouri, on agricultural trade to Cuba:
“I respectfully call on members of Congress to support our farmers, to support the free-market, and support this opportunity to strengthen our economy here at home[…] Now is the time for Congress to follow through and remove these finance restrictions, lift the embargo and do away with the self-imposed barriers that are holding us back.”
Carlos M. Gutierrez, former Secretary of Commerce and current co-chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group:
“I believe that it is now time for Republicans and the wider American business community to stop fixating on the past and embrace a new approach to Cuba.”
Myron Brilliant, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs:
“Having long advocated for an end to the economic embargo on Cuba, the U.S. Chamber looks forward to working with the U.S. Congress and other key stakeholders to fully realize the potential of our bilateral economic relat
Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union:
“Breaking down these self-imposed trade barriers is necessary to provide U.S. family farmers with increased market access and opportunities for trade in Cuba, a market of 11 million people just 90 miles away from American shores. NFU fully supports the Cuba Trade Act of 2015, which will lift the failed trade embargo and boost U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.”
Devry Boughner Vorwerk, Chair of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC):
“Ultimately, it’s in the hands of Congress to decide whether we get the chance to trade and invest, or whether we sit on the sidelines while our competitors engage more strategically than we’re able to.”
Greg Yielding, Executive Director of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association:
“The Cuba Trade Act will allow farmers in Arkansas to sell more food to Cuba, so of course we support this kind of legislative initiative,” said Greg Yielding, Executive Director of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. “The embargo on Cuba is counterproductive and costly for American farmers, we are losing sales everyday to countries like Brazil and Vietnam, updating our outdated policy to remove restrictions on trade makes sense. Congressman Emmer deserves credit for taking this issue on.”
Bob Rohrlack, President and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce:
“Opening trade with the people and businesses of Cuba will create new opportunities for companies in both of our countries to thrive and grow. The Cuba Trade Act is the first step in this process, and is crucial to positioning Tampa as the gateway for goods and services to Cuba.”
Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson, Director of the Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Church (USA):
“Our faith is about building opportunities for reconciliation and justice. Expanding U.S. trade with Cuba will not only improve ties between the two nations, but also help foster positive changes in the economic conditions faced by those who live on the island.”
Rev. John L. McCullough, President and CEO, Church World Service:
“We welcome the current process of normalizing ties between Cuba and the United States. Yet, more work lies ahead. Lifting the U.S. trade embargo would vastly improve the day-to-day lives of many Cubans. Let that be the next goal. This is a humanitarian issue that CWS will continue to focus on for the sake of our sisters and brothers in Cuba.”
Mavis Anderson, Latin America Working Group:
“Rep. Emmer has shown foresight and reason in his introduction of the new trade legislation in the House. The ground is shifting under traditional supporters of the embargo on Cuba; it is becoming truly a bipartisan issue, with Republicans taking the lead in both the House and Senate. The American people’s support for a new policy toward Cuba is undeniable. Our policymakers need to catch up to their constituents.”