Mavis Anderson, senior associate for Cuba policy at the Latin America Working Group, gave the following remarks at a congressional briefing for House staff on February 24, 2010. The briefing's panelists included Former Secretary of Agriculture under President Ronald Reagan, John Block; Father Juan Molina of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops; Chris Garza of American Farm Bureau; and moderating, Tom Garofalo of the New American Foundation. The briefing took place on Thursday February 24, 2010.
In reference to the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba” Act, introduced by Reps. Delahunt and Flake last Spring, Freedom House issued this statement: "This bill is in no way meant to reward Cuba's regime, rather it is a necessary strategy to advance democratic change and strengthen relationships with the Cuban people at a critical time in their country's history," — Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director.
Many of you, I am sure, have heard of the Cuban blogger, Yoani Sanchez. She is known for fighting Cuba’s restrictions on the Internet, and slipping into tourist hotels in disguise so she can use the business center to blog and tweet.
She gave an interview recently in which she called U.S. economic restrictions “a blunder.” She said they hurt Cubans economically and that U.S. sanctions give the Cuban government an excuse to stop Cubans from expressing themselves more freely. We should change this.
Third, the Peterson-Moran bill will also benefit Cubans. Increasing travel by Americans to Cuba helps Cubans: by increasing tourist industry jobs and the better incomes that those jobs provide through tips; by upping the nu mber of tourists who want to stay in privately held bed-and-breakfasts and eat at family-owned restaurants; by offering frequent free-and-easy contact with U.S. citizens, and exposure to our ideas and information to which they otherwise might not have access (and who knows, we may even have something to learn from the Cubans!); by removing any stigma of “the enemy” from our relationships.
And, opening up Cuba to greater sales of U.S. food will provide another kind of benefit to Cuban families. Ninety percent of the food we sell to Cuba ends up on the tables of Cuban families.
As you know, Congress legalized the sale of food to Cuba on a cash-in-advance basis in the year 2000. Cuba is a small, but it is hardly a trivial market.
Cuba spends close to $2 billion annually buying food in the international market to feed its people. Sales of food at high quality and good prices benefit average Cubans.
Over the last decade, U.S. food sales to Cuba have averaged $300 million a year, some years much higher than this average. A few years ago, the previous administration tightened the regulations, and this led U.S. sales going down and sales by competitors going up.
So, we know that Cuba has to buy food in international markets to feed its people. The question is this: will it be food produced here in the United States and sold for cash that feeds average Cubans or will it be food produced in China, Russia, Vietnam, Brazil, and the E.U., paid by credits to the Cuban government? That is one of the issues that this bill addresses.
In almost every party platform since 1980, the Republicans and the Democrats have made commitments not to use food as a weapon of foreign policy – not only because it hurts American farmers, but because it sends a bad message to the very people we should be trying to help. The Peterson-Moran bill ends some restrictions that will help us export more food to feed average Cubans, and that is a good thing from our perspective.
Fourth, and last, these changes need to be made, because the current policy simply does not work.
For nearly 50 years, we have had an embargo on Cuba. It’s done nothing to change Cuba’s political or economic system. But the rules restricting trade and travel have hurt the American people and the Cuban people. It has cut us off from market opportunities that would create jobs and help businesses here at home; it has prevented Americans from exercising their rights to travel to Cuba; and it has prevented us from having contact with and learning from average Cubans.
Our country has spent nearly 50 years trying to starve and isolate Cuba. It hasn’t worked. The Peterson-Moran bill is a departure from that policy that hasn’t worked and won’t work. Let’s try something different, a new direction.
Although you all are the political experts, I strongly believe that if we take these and other steps, the public in the United States will applaud us when we do.
As I said, here in the United States, the current policy is incredibly unpopular – more than 60 percent of Americans, more than 60 percent of Cuban Americans want the freedom to travel for all Americans.
For those reasons, we strongly encourage your bosses to publicly support this new direction by cosponsoring HR 4645, the Peterson-Moran bill.