WASHINGTON, May 20, 2015-- While the agricultural industry is anticipating more business due to President Barack Obama’s actions to normalize relations with Cuba, several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today questioned the administration’s ability to negotiate with a totalitarian communist state known for human rights abuses.

Obama declared in December that he would support normalized relations with the nation led by President Raul Castro, including lifting a half-century old trade embargo. The administration is beginning the fourth round of discussion with Cuban counterparts this week.

Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told the lawmakers at a hearing that the government is planning future talks with Cuba focused on human rights.She said the administration’s current strategy is focused on providing forms of commerce, like telecommunications, that offer economic opportunity to independent Cuban entrepreneurs or benefit all Cubans. 

“Comprehensive changes in our economic relationship will require congressional action to lift the embargo,” she said.

A full end to the embargo, which prohibits most trade between the U.S. and Cuba, requires an act of Congress, but the president is making regulatory changes and exemptions through executive action.

Under current sanctions, U.S. food and agriculture companies can legally export to Cuba, but financial restrictions limit their competitiveness. Earlier this year, more than 30 food and farm organizations formed the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, noting that the nation is a $1.7 billion market that imports 80 percent of its food.

However, during the hearing Wednesday, senators listed several human rights violations that continue in Cuba, including arbitrary arrests, harsh prison conditions, as well as restrictions on free speech, Internet access and academic freedom.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat on the panel, has been highly critical of the administration’s plan. He said the Cuban government has made more than 1,600 arbitrary political arrests so far in 2015. 

“I have deep concerns that the more these talks progress, the more the administration continues to entertain unilateral concessions without – in return – getting agreement on fundamental issues that are in our national interest,” he said.

He criticized the administration’s planned removal of Cuba from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism that will be finalized later this month. He noted that terrorists enjoy safe haven in Cuba, including a criminal on FBI’s most wanted terrorist list for murdering a New Jersey state trooper, and two others wanted for killing a New Mexico state trooper and hijacking a U.S. civilian plane.

Cuba was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982. Other countries on the list are Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Additionally, “I have not seen any movement toward greater freedom for the Cuban people,” Menendez said. “Obama may have outstretched his hand, but the Castros still have their fists held real tight.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who is more supportive of normalized relations with Cuba, said entrepreneurship in that nation will only increase with more American travelers.

“There are no guarantees that anything will happen, but change is more likely to occur with increased contact with the U.S.,” he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued that most hotels that American travelers would use in Cuba are owned by the Cuban government. “What we’re really talking about is increased business ties with the Cuban military,” Rubio said, adding that a vast majority of travelers’ dollars “will wind up in hands of a Cuban military that sponsors terrorism.”

In contrast, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he welcomes “this new chapter of normalized relations,” and that more interaction with American travelers and businesses would help grow the private sector in Cuba. For instance, he said more farmers in Cuba are owning or leasing private plots or are working within cooperatives. “There’s an organic sector also working there,” he added. “When we travel, these are the folks we are helping.”

Udall cosponsored the Agricultural Export Expansion Act, introduced in April, which would lift the ban on private banks and companies from offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba, to “help level the playing field for U.S. farmers and exporters.”

Additionally, he introduced a bill with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., this week that would allow American companies to invest in Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure.

The State Department’s Jacobson emphasized the importance of American telecommunications companies investing in Cuba during the hearing. She said the administration made regulatory changes that “enable U.S. companies to offer expanded telecommunications and Internet services in ways that will help all Cubans.”

However, Rubio said the Cuban government is responsible for the restrictions on Internet access. Even though the U.S. is the only major country with an embargo on Cuba, its citizens haven’t benefitted from any other nation’s technological investments, he said.

“The Cuban government doesn’t allow much access relative to the outside world when it comes to communication,” said Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., adding that American investment won’t do much good “if the government doesn’t allow citizens to participate.”

Jacobson replied that, “We don’t know what the Cuban government will agree to, but the narrative that the U.S. is responsible for economic hardship in Cuba is eroding” as a result of normalization.


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