Amendments on Congressional Appropriations Bills Reveal New Momentum to Lift the Embargo, Piece by Piece

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Authors: Aminah Luqman, Angelika Albaladejo

Momentum is building in the U.S. Congress to remove travel, trade, and financial restrictions on Cuba. Appropriations bills for the coming year in both the Senate and the House of Representatives include amendments aimed at loosening the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

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Last week, four amendments related to Cuba were passed in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Votes were also expected on two Cuba-related amendments in the House, but the draft legislation that included the measures has been tabled –at least until after the July 4th recess– following a sit-in by House Democrats calling for a vote on gun control legislation.

There is some strong bipartisan support for these measures on Cuba, particularly in the Senate. But, political party tensions and continued backlash from members of Congress opposed to normalized relations with Cuba may stall or prevent these amendments from passing all the way through the legislative process.

Nevertheless, these amendments –in addition to stand-alone pieces of legislation the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) is supporting in both chambers of Congress– show that there is movement towards ending the embargo on Cuba.

LAWG has summarized the amendments so that you can familiarize yourself with the legislative process and what stands to change on travel, trade, financial transactions, and telecommunications with Cuba.

Senate Amendments to End the Travel Ban, Allow Agricultural Trade on Credit, and Allow Export of Telecommunications to Cuba

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee passed four amendments on June 16 that would lift key elements of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. If these amendments make their way through the legislative process, they would allow Americans to freely travel to Cuba, sell U.S. agricultural commodities to Cuba on credit, and export telecommunication devices and services to Cuba. They would also eliminate some of the sanctions put on U.S. vessels and international flights that travel to and from Cuba. These amendments, which were passed under the Senate’s Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2017, will now make their way to the Senate floor to be debated.

  • Amendment to allow private sector credit & lift port restrictions

    Introduced by Senators John Boozman (R-AR) and Jon Tester (D-MT), this amendment would allow private banks and companies to offer credit for the sale of U.S. agricultural commodities to Cuba. Currently, Cuban importers need to pay for American agricultural commodities with cash, making agricultural producers in the United States less competitive in the Cuban market.  This amendment would also eliminate the law under the embargo which states that any U.S. vessel that has docked in Cuba may not load or unload freight anywhere in the United States within 180 days unless granted a license from the U.S. Treasury. This amendment passed by a vote of 22 to 8 with bipartisan support from 14 Democrats and 8 Republicans.

  • Amendment to lift the travel ban

    Introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS),  this amendment would prohibit the use of  federal funds (i.e. your taxpayer dollars) to restrict travel to Cuba. This would allow U.S. citizens to freely travel to Cuba without restrictions by the Department of the Treasury and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). This amendment passed by voice vote, so, there is no record of how each member of the Senate Appropriations Committee voted.

  • Amendment allowing the exportation of telecommunication devices & services to Cuba

    This amendment would allow the exportation of consumer communication devices or U.S. telecommunication services to Cuba and was also passed by voice vote.

  • Amendment allowing refueling at Bangor International Airport

    This amendment would allow international flights traveling to and from Cuba to refuel at the Bangor International Airport in Maine and was passed by voice vote. Currently, these types of flights are refueling in Canada because of restrictions put in place by the embargo.

House Amendments to End the Travel Ban and Facilitate Agricultural Trade

In the House, members of the Cuba Working Group submitted Cuba-related amendments to the House Committee on Rules, focusing on ending the travel ban and allowing the sale of agricultural commodities on credit. The Committee on Rules has the power to do almost anything to the House’s version of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2017, including approving it, rewriting it, and deciding the ways in which it will be debated on the House Floor. The House Committee on Rules approved the two amendments on June 22, allowing the amendments to be debated and voted on in Committee, and ultimately, on the floor of the House.

Ahead of a vote, LAWG joined a wide range of organizations, associations, and companies in sending a letter to the members of the House of Representatives in support of the two Cuba-related amendments to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act (H.R. 5485):

  • Amendment to lift the travel ban

    Introduced by Representatives Sam Farr, Tom Emmer, Kevin Cramer, Jim McGovern, Kathy Castor, and Barbara Lee, this amendment would eliminate funding for the enforcement of the travel ban, effectively ending the failed policy of isolation by allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba. This amendment would align Congress with the will of the American people.

  • Amendment to allow private credit on agricultural trade with Cuba

    Introduced by Representatives Rick Crawford, Ted Poe, Ralph Abraham, Kevin Cramer, Sam Farr, and Cheri Bustos, this amendment would reduce the barriers that American farmers face in trying to sell agricultural products to Cuba. Currently, U.S. restrictions raise the cost of doing business and make U.S. exports uncompetitive in the Cuban market, according to a report by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC). If these restrictions on trade with Cuba are removed, agricultural products exported to Cuba are estimated to increase $485 million. In addition to helping American agricultural producers, private credit would also reduce the cost of importing food, which would give the Cuban people access to high quality American agricultural products. More than 7 out of 10 Americans support ending the trade embargo, as do an overwhelming majority of Latin Americans throughout the region, according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center. While this amendment will not accomplish a full lifting of the embargo on Cuba, it does chip away at the economic restrictions that the U.S. government places on agricultural producers.

Last year, Representative Mark Sanford’s amendment to end the travel ban received 176 votes in the House. This year, with your support and activism, there is even more bipartisan support to bring about real change.

But, despite increasing support for these amendments, the House appropriations bill was pulled from the legislation calendar altogether because the Republican leadership wasn’t confident the underlying bill would get enough votes for passage in the House.

Since it was pulled from the legislative calendar, the bill, along with its amendments, will not be voted on or considered until it is put back on the agenda.

Here are some possible scenarios:

  • Both chambers approve appropriation bills that include Cuba-related amendments, and they are sent to a committee to reconcile the differences.  If the two bills have contradictory amendments, however, the amendments will likely be removed altogether.
  • One chamber of Congress passes pro-normalization amendments and the other does not include any Cuba-related amendments. This scenario could facilitate the creation of a final appropriations bill that includes pro-normalization amendments.
  • The appropriations bills stall in the Senate or the House and Congress approves an omnibus bill that would bundle up to 12 individual appropriations bills into one. Since omnibus spending bills are generally adopted at the last minute to meet the October 1st deadline, amendments related to a controversial issue, like Cuba, would likely be pushed aside for the sake of consensus.

Though these moments of legislative limbo are confusing and uncertain, you can influence the process by calling or emailing your members of Congress and lifting up our collective voice to end the embargo on Cuba.

Your activism has been essential in securing major advancements since the December 17, 2014 announcement of normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. We can’t stop now.

As we wait to see what will happen moving forward with these Cuba-related amendments, you can continue taking action to help gain widespread support in the House for three important bills that will make progress toward ending the embargo. It only takes a minute to contact your representative’s office with requests to co-sponsor these bills to end travel and trade restrictions, and the impacts are significant. Take action to get the House on board with lifting the embargo, piece by piece!