In another step in the process to thaw relations with Cuba, a group of lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation to lift the trade embargo that has existed with the country for decades.
The legislation comes two months after the White House announced its plans to normalize relations with Cuba, and two weeks after a group of lawmakers introduced legislation to relax travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba.
The opening to Cuba is a complicated, multi-pronged effort — part of which Congress can influence, part of which the administration can, and has, implemented on its own authority. The December announcement by the White House already loosened some travel and financial restrictions. But the major controls on travel and trade are much stronger and reversing them would require congressional action.
The legislation was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who was joined by Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
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According to its sponsors, the bill would eliminate legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba and “pave the way for new economic opportunities for American businesses and farmers.” If passed, it would repeal laws on the books that block Americans from doing business in Cuba; it would not repeal laws addressing human rights or property claims against the Cuban government.
Said Klobuchar in a statement: “It’s time to the turn the page on our Cuba policy. Fifty years of the embargo have not secured our interests in Cuba and have disadvantaged American businesses by restricting commerce with a market of 11 million people just 90 miles from our shores.”
The legislation is being pushed by farm interests, including the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba has existed in some form since 1960, but it was under the president’s purview until Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996. The law says the embargo stays in place until Cuba holds free and fair elections, releases political prisoners and guarantees free speech and workers’ rights. Only Congress can lift the embargo.
The embargo was initially designed to punish Fidel Castro for seizing U.S. properties in Cuba, embracing the Soviet Union and trying to subvert many of his Latin American neighbors. Over time, however, the embargo has been the biggest source of diplomatic and political tension between the two countries.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Miami, said in a statement that opponents of the embargo attempt to lift it every Congress.
“There is already a process for lifting the embargo: free and fair elections in Cuba, respect for fundamental human rights, the release of all political prisoners and other requirements of Helms-Burton,” she said. “Instead of empowering the regime, we should stand with the Cuban people and their pro-democracy leaders to ensure that when history is written, we are on the side of liberty.”
Experts say that overturning the embargo will be difficult — although a coalition of Democrats, libertarian Republicans and farm state lawmakers from both parties could eventually make it happen.
But asked in a recent interview with the CBS News program 60 Minutes whether the trade embargo would stay in place, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, “I would think so.”