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Mavis Anderson’s Congressional Briefing Remarks

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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.

Special Congressional Staff Briefing on "Exports and Job Creation: Impacts of U.S. Travel and Agriculture Trade with Cuba"
Peterson-Moran Bill (HR 4645)
 
Sponsored by: The Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Latin America Working Group, the New America Foundation,
and the Washington Office on Latin America
 
 Mavis Anderson Panel Remarks
 
Although I was born and raised in rural Minnesota (along with lots of corn, soybeans, dairy and poultry), our other speakers (Secretary of Agriculture under President Reagan, John Block; Chis Garza, American Farm Bureau Federation) have talked with great authority about why it’s important to open up Cuba as an agriculture market.  That is their area of specialization, so let me talk to you about mine. 
 
I want to share four reasons why we think breaking down barriers to travel and ag sales – and the Peterson-Moran bill proposes both those changes – is in the interests of the American people and the Cuban people.  
 

mavis sec john block cuba congressional briefing 2 24 2010

 

First, it is in the interests of U.S. citizens to end the ban on travel to Cuba.  The newly-introduced Peterson-Moran bill (HR 4645) restores to U.S. citizens our fundamental right to travel where and when we choose.  You likely know that Cuba is the only nation on the face of this earth to which Americans are not allowed to travel without asking permission of our government.  North Korea – you may freely travel there, without requesting permission from the USA.  Iran – same deal.  Afghanistan – yes.  Syria or the Sudan – sure.  China and Vietnam (both communist countries) – no problem.  But Cuba, no way.  So, one thing that the new bill does is correct this injustice toward our own citizens.  We have things to share with Cubans; let’s free ourselves to be able to do that.  We can exchange ideas, bring and leave newspapers, and, importantly, listen to Cubans and encourage them to express themselves to us about their lives, their country, their dreams.  That is a unique and irreplaceable value of travel to Cuba that will be strengthened by this legislation.
 
Having been to Cuba on numerous occasions – all legally, I have been a part of many interchanges with Cubans. I’ve had Cubans talk to me proudly about the gains they have experienced in free healthcare and free education, and in decreased sexism, for example.  I’ve experienced the vibrancy of their culture in music and dance. I’ve also had Cubans complain to me loudly and without reservation about shortages, the need for two or three jobs, their desire to open a business or travel the world. I have seen Americans—and tourists from other countries—debate baseball with Cubans at the hot corner in the Parque Central and engage Cubans in discussions about local politics and world events.  This is all good.
 
While U.S.-Cuba policy overall may continue to be a hot button issue, ending the travel ban is not a controversial issue. On the contrary, it is supported by the distinct majority of Americans, Cuban Americans, Latin American heads of state, and the world.
 
67 percent of Cuban Americans favor allowing all U.S. citizens travel to Cuba—not just if you have family there; this trend has been increasing annually. The American public in general (70%) feels that all Americans should be free to visit Cuba, and only a minority (28%) feels that Americans should be prohibited from visiting the island. Freedom for Americans to visit Cuba is broadly supported by Republicans (62%), by independents (66%), and by Democrats (77%).
 
And, as far as the world goes, in 2009 the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 19th consecutive year to condemn the United States’ embargo on Cuba. In a near unanimous vote of 187 to 3 (the United States; Israel, which trades with and invests significantly in Cuba; the powerhouse nation, Palau), it is clear that the United States is isolated in the global community. Also, every leader in Latin America has called for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Maintaining the status quo is limiting our ability to open a new chapter in relations with the region. In 2009 the United States became the only nation in the western hemisphere to not have diplomatic relations with the Island.
 
Second, I want to make the point that encouraging this kind of contact with Cubans is something that human rights advocates – here and in Cuba – strongly support and believe will be beneficial to ordinary Cubans. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops believes that (as you have heard from Father Molina); the AFL-CIO believes that; Freedom House, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch believe that.

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.