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House Backs Away from Engagement

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On June 14, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to ease restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba. Two other amendments, one which would have eased restrictions on educational travel and one which would have ended the embargo, failed to pass. A fourth amendment to protect religious travel to Cuba was withdrawn following the debate.

The amendment regarding agricultural sales to Cuba was introduced by Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS). Passed by voice vote, the amendment would undo tightened trade restrictions put in place by the Treasury Department last year. The current restrictions require Cuba to pay for agricultural products in cash, prior to the shipment to Havana. Opponents of the amendment argued that the “cash in advance” rule was necessary to ensure that U.S. farmers get paid, but in reality the restrictions have reduced sales by 22 percent. Congressman Moran spoke in defense of his amendment saying, “We clearly can reach the conclusion that unilateral sanctions by the United States are only harmful to our own agriculture sector, to our own farmers.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced an amendment which would protect the status of religious travel to Cuba which, though currently allowed, is increasingly being threatened and narrowed by the administration. Speaking in favor of the amendment, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) argued, “Now they are preparing even more restrictions that will discriminate among the many religious organizations on the island and pick and choose who it is okay to break bread with in faith and fellowship. They will take it upon themselves the right to say what constitutes a church and who is a legitimate person of faith. The United States of America does not and must not take such actions against communities of faith.” The amendment was withdrawn following the debate, but sponsors of the amendment and religious organizations are currently in contact with the Department of State to protest and encourage reversal of the new restrictions.

The amendment to restrict the use of funds to enforce the full economic embargo was introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY). Though the amendment failed by a vote of 183-245, several members of Congress who have consistently opposed similar amendments in the past, voted in favor.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced the final amendment, which would restrict funds to enforce the newest restrictions on educational travel. The 2004 restrictions limit educational exchanges to a minimum of 10 weeks and a maximum of one year, and require that students travel to Cuba through their home university. As a result, nearly 90 percent of university study abroad programs to Cuba have been cancelled. Speaking for the amendment, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) recalled, “Throughout the Cold War, American students studied in the Soviet Union. Many of them went on to become diplomats, scholars and policymakers who used the knowledge they gained to contribute to the development and implementation of U.S. foreign policy […] There is no reason to treat study in Cuba differently.” Opponents of the bill, led by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), repeated a broad opposition to the Castro regime, but barely addressed the issue of educational exchange. Concluding the debate, Congresswoman Lee said, “Our young people are hopeful for the possibilities of a new world free of all the politics that we have heard today. So why don’t we give them a chance to participate?” The Lee amendment failed by a vote of 187-236.

All four amendments were attached to the Treasury and Transportation Appropriations Bill for 2007. Although similar versions of the amendments have been introduced and passed in previous years, they have been consistently removed in conference by the Republican leadership. The White House issued a statement on the morning of the votes which reiterated their commitment to veto the bill if it contained language to weaken the embargo.

Similar amendments introduced in previous years have passed and, until 2004, continued to gain votes; however, since 2005, anti-embargo amendments have lost support. Many representatives changed their votes after receiving campaign contributions from the US-Cuba Democracy PAC. The PAC, an anti-Casto, pro-embargo organization primarily funded by Cuban Americans in Florida, has given money to members of Congress and candidates across the country. (Click here for more information on 2004 contributions and the impact upon votes by members of Congress.) As of late March 2006, the US-Cuba Democracy PAC has already contributed $347,424 to federal candidates for the 2006 elections; many of the representatives have switched to a position that does not favor engagement with Cuba, a position that their constituents may not support. U.S. citizens have the right to expect that their members of Congress will cast votes that are in accord with their constituents’ views, rather than are influenced by big-money, out-of-state lobbyists.