President Obama’s announcement last week that the U.S. will restore diplomatic relations with communist Cuba on July 20 – and will open an embassy there a few days after – is angering South Florida lawmakers.
Their options to stop the Administration are limited. But they’re moving against Obama’s new engagement policy nonetheless, and it’s shaping up as one of the summer’s big political battles.
The rhetoric from the Cuban-American congressional caucus is rising with the humid temperature in Washington, D.C.
“It is very clear that President Obama, for him it’s a personal goal to normalize relations with Cuba, no matter what,” says Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Miami.
Re-establishing diplomatic ties, which were severed in 1961, is the first big part of Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba, which he announced last December.
Before the agreement was reached to open mutual embassies this month, the U.S. took Cuba off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism – and that infuriated the caucus. Veteran South Florida Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart accuses the Administration of caving to demands from Cuba’s Castro regime, while getting nothing in exchange.
“Where are the requirements to allow for freedom of press or the legalization of political parties or independent labor unions?” Diaz-Balart asks. “In other words, where are the requests for human rights, basic human rights? Not just some lip service, but where are they as far as part of these negotiations?”
Florida Senator and GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio is vowing to block the nomination of whomever the President picks to be ambassador to Cuba. Other lawmakers are pledging to thwart funding for any new embassy construction in Havana (although a de facto embassy building – known as the U.S. Interests Section, already exists there).
What else can the delegation do?
For starters, Diaz-Balart is trying to tie Obama’s hands by including policy language inside spending bills. One amendment that passed out of committee, over objections from Democrats, bars U.S. exports to the island if Cuban military or intelligence officials are involved.
“Which in essence just says the following,” says Diaz-Balart. “Alright, let’s not do business with the Cuban military and the Cuban intelligence services. That’s it. It was ironic that some people wanted to take that language out, which means they... don’t want to help the Cuban people.”
Diaz-Balart has also led efforts in the House to block U.S. flights and cruise ships from stopping in Cuba. That too passed.
“And I think you’re going to see, as we’ve seen so far, very strong bipartisan support to keep that language,” says Diaz-Balart, “to make sure that that President’s policy doesn’t have the effect that it is frankly so far having, which is empower the actual regime, the brutality of that regime.”
Still, while Diaz-Balart is having success in the House, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake says he thinks the upper chamber is a different story.
“I would be very surprised to see any of [Diaz-Balart’s measures] go anywhere in the Senate,” says Flake.
Flake is a vocal proponent of normalizing relations with Cuba, and he’s been lobbying his GOP colleagues one by one on the issue. It seems to be working.
Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts recently traveled to Cuba with Flake, and he was won over to Flake’s side. To Roberts, it’s all about giving his state’s farmers a new market.
“Well, agriculture, almost all of agriculture of course is interested in the potential for trade,” says Roberts.
South Florida lawmakers were up in arms when the President in 2009 relaxed restriction on Cuban-Americans traveling and sending remittances to Cuba. Flake says the wouldn’t dare subject their constituents to a ban like that now – especially since most polls show the majority of Cuban-Americans now support Obama’s engagement policy.
Flake also predicts that once the embassies open and more direct flights are allowed, the conversation in Washington will change.
“And when all of that happens,” he says, “a lot of these things that we’ve been talking about here are moot because it’s happening, people are traveling, things are changing. And if some of the measures to restrict some of this would [mean] taking something away that people [now] have, then people don’t like that.”
Even so, Cuban-American caucus members like Curbelo believe it’s a battle worth fighting.
“All we’re asking for is, before we fully engage Cuba, that the Cuban government and the American government do right by the citizens of the United States and by the people of Cuba,” says Curbelo. “There will be a time and a day for engagement, but there are some very important goals that have to be reached before that day arrives.”
Cuba plans to open its embassy in Washington on July 20, the same day the U.S and Cuba officially re-establish ties.
State Department officials say they’ll wait a day or two before they do the same in Havana – in large part so as not to unduly offend Cuban-American leaders like Rubio, Curbelo Diaz-Balart and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami – who derides Obama’s Cuba normalization project as “legacy shopping.”
Either way, those South Florida lawmakers will be protesting the ceremonies in both capitals.