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Senator Sanders Visits Cuba and Calls for End of the Embargo

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Author: Zuleika Rivera

Last week a U.S. Senate delegation headed to Cuba to discuss human rights, trade and health care issues. They also made a trip to Guantanamo Naval Base which Sanders supports closing. The delegation also met with Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor arrested in 2009. Gross was arrested when the Cuban government discovered he was smuggling sophisticated military-style internet equipment into Cuba. His arrest has become an obstacle to normalization between US-Cuba relations.

Since his return, Senator Sanders has publicly stated that he talked to Alan Gross and discussed Gross’ detainment with Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez.  The Cuban government has indicated that they are willing to release Alan Gross in exchange for the Cuban Five, four of which are still in prison (one is set to be released on February 27th). On the other hand, the U.S. refuses to consider the Cuban Five’s release in exchange for Gross. The Cuban Five are five Cuban men who were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on September 12, 1998. They were accused of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States and other charges. The Cuban Five say they were on a mission in Miami to infiltrate Miami-based terrorist groups and prevent them from carrying out attacks in Cuba.

Senator Sanders of Vermont supports an end to the embargo. For him, “American businesses are losing billions of dollars because of the economic embargo. Meanwhile, Canadians and Europeans are creating jobs through their investments in Cuba,” he said.  “My hope is that Cuba moves toward a more democratic society while, at the same time, the United States will respect the independence of the Cuban people.” After his visit he reaffirmed his support and called the embargo “an abject failure.” He admits there have been some positive steps from both sides such as Obama easing travel restrictions in 2011 and the Cuban government allowing Cubans to travel to the U.S. but “we have an embargo that is counterproductive.” Sanders accepts that human right issues should be part of the discussion if the U.S. and Cuba decide to open a dialogue.

A recent survey conducted by the Atlantic Council further supports Senator Sanders’ position. This is the first survey to center on U.S. national interest on Cuba and was conducted by a bipartisan group. The poll tries to examine the question of how much support there is for the United States to move in a new direction regarding policy towards Cuba. The survey finds that “A majority of Americans now favor normalizing relations or engaging more directly with the Cuban government.” The poll also makes it clear than even Floridians, the most intractable community regarding U.S.-Cuba relations, support a normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations at 63 percent, even higher than American national approval.

Senator Sanders is not alone in his position. Both Senator Leahy (D-VT) and Flake (R-AZ) are adamant that the embargo should end. In a Miami Herald op-ed both Senators declared that the Cold War is over. “We [the United States] have re-established diplomatic relations with the communist governments of China and Vietnam. Still, the United States has refused to reexamine the political and economic embargo on Cuba.” The U.S. is losing out economically due to the embargo. All other countries have resumed relations with Cuba. In particular, Latin America showed strong solidarity with Cuba in the recent Community of Latin American States (CELAC) summit. Even some of the United States’ strong Latin American allies like Mexico support Cuba. The European Union is also set to start negotiations with Cuba about economic relations even though most European countries already have some type of relation with Cuba.

The momentum toward ending the embargo is only getting stronger with Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) publicly calling for a policy change in Cuba as well as sugar tycoon, Alfonso Fanjul, expressing desire to expand his sugar empire to Cuba. (Fanjul used to be against any type of normalization between the United States and Cuba unless the Castro regime was toppled.) These are only a few of the myriad of political leaders and influential Cuban- Americans calling for an end to the embargo. The embargo has not accomplished what it was meant to; instead of isolating Cuba it has isolated the United States. The question now becomes, as Senator Flake said at the release of the Atlantic Council Cuba poll, “Why not move forward with Cuba?”