In Washington it used to be that elected officials could vigorously spar in the halls of Congress, but then put partisanship aside to solve important problems or just meet together over a meal. It’s not easy to build consensus and goodwill on tough issues, but it’s what most Americans expect of their government. While there are plenty of big fights still to be had, bipartisan progress is clearly emerging on an unlikely issue: Cuba policy.
There may be reasonable disagreement over how to move forward, but few people believe our fifty-year-old policy of isolating Cuba is working. Across party lines and demographics, poll after poll has shown that Americans want the freedom to engage with Cuba through travel and trade. Even inside Cuba, support for engaging with America runs high: a groundbreaking poll recently revealed that 97 percent of the Cuban people support normalization, and 96 percent want to see an end to the embargo. And one of the top fashion trends in Cuba is clothing emblazoned with American flags.
Congress has taken note. A flurry of bills have been introduced on both sides of the aisle since President Obama’s December 17th announcement that put us on the path to normalization. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) teamed up with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) on legislation to end the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba. Last week, Republican Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.) joined with Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine) to introduce a bill ending the trade embargo but maintaining a ban on the use of federal taxpayer dollars on trade promotion. These are good examples of seeking compromise and working across party lines.Engage Cuba, a new public advocacy organization focused on ending the trade and travel bans, reflects that same bipartisan spirit. The founder of the group (James Williams) is a public policy adviser to philanthropists with strong ties to the Obama Administration. Its top two advisers come from opposite sides of the political barricades: Steven Law runs American Crossroads and Luke Albee is a well-known Democrat who served more than two decades in Congress as Chief of Staff to Sens. Leahy and Warner (D-Va.). What brought us together was an interest in helping to make history in Cuba – and a shared enthusiasm for Cuban cigars.
This past week revealed why this effort is needed and timely. In the House of Representatives provisions were added to funding bills to try to roll Cuba policy back to a Cold War posture, even as embassies are in the process of being announced. The bills immediately drew veto threats, and it’s clear they have little chance of getting through the Senate with those measures. However, progress isn’t going to be made by fighting rear-guard actions; we need to move our policy toward Cuba in a new, positive direction.
The Flake-Leahy bill to end the travel ban already has 40 cosponsors from both parties as of this writing, with more being added by the week. Bipartisan congressional trips to Cuba are growing, often driven by constituent interests such as agricultural economic opportunities. The new Moran-King bill aims to strike a balance by extending the ban on using federal money for Cuba trade promotion while freeing up the American private sector to do what it does best just as Cuba undergoes an historic transition.
That’s how Washington should work: respectful of other points of view but with an eye toward moving America’s best interests forward. Together we should be asking questions like: if the U.S. government isn’t stopping us from traveling to Iran or even a pariah state like North Korea, why are we prohibited from hopping on a short flight to Cuba? If foreign companies have carte blanche to develop lucrative business deals 90 miles off our shores, why should American businesses be shut out? If we believe in the persuasive power of American free enterprise, why are we banning it from Cuba?
These are conversations worth having, but a robust debate requires new, diverse voices on this issue from all over America. We’re looking forward to helping bring those voices to Washington and informing this historic debate in Congress.
By James Williams, Steven Law and Luke Albee, The Hill
June 16, 2015
Williams is president of Engage Cuba, Law and Albee are senior advisers, follow them on Twitter @Engage_Cuba.