Last summer, when the Cuban government expressed concerns over avian flu and put a hold on Alabama poultry shipments into the island, Dr. Tony Frazier, the state veterinarian, was part of a delegation that flew to Havana to reassure the Cubans that they had nothing to fear from the Alabama birds.
Count Frazier among the state officials who say that Alabama and the U.S. have little to fear and plenty to gain from a lifting of the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
“You look at the average person down there, they’re no different from me and you,” Frazier said. “They just want to provide for their family.”
But lifting the embargo cannot happen with the stroke of a pen. Congress has to take the necessary action, and there are some issues that U.S. and Cuban officials will have to resolve before that day comes.
Alabama’s top elected official, Gov. Robert Bentley, would like for that day to have already arrived. In mid-October, following a summer when the U.S. and Cuba formally opened embassies in each other’s capitals after 54 years of estrangement, Bentley joined eight other governors who signed an anti-embargo letter to congressional leaders.
“Ending the embargo will create jobs here at home, especially in rural America, and will create new opportunities for U.S. agriculture,” the letter states in part. It also notes that the plusses of such a move mean more than “dollars and cents.”
“This positive change in relations between our nations will usher in a new era of cooperation that transcends business,” states the letter, whose signatories include Govs. Jerry Brown of California, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Thomas Wolf of Pennsylvania and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia. “Expanded diplomatic relations, corporate partnerships, trade and dialogue will put us in a better position to boost democratic ideals in Cuba. This goal has not been achieved with an outdated strategy of isolation and sanctions.”
If Alabama U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer’s point of view is any indication, Congress is not about to lift the trade embargo. In response to an email asking his position on the embargo, the 6th District freshman Republican noted that under some 1996 legislation known as the “Libertad Act,” a president “may only terminate the full Cuban embargo once a democratically elected government is in power.” That democratic requirement would not be necessary if the GOP-controlled Congress voted to repeal that Libertad law, but Palmer has no intention of casting a repeal vote.
“Cuba is led by an oppressive regime that deprives its citizens of basic liberties that we often take for granted in the U.S.,” Palmer said. “Located only 90 miles off our shore, the country is dependent on trade with human rights violators such as Venezuela and North Korea. Historically, Cuba has been an avowed enemy of the U.S. since the days of the Cold War.
“While I understand the importance of free trade, I believe normalizing relations with Cuba should occur when Cuba has a democratically elected government,” Palmer said.
An email to Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, asking his position on the embargo, has not yet received a response.
The trade embargo is a contentious issue between the U.S. and Cuba, and has been since Fidel Castro’s forces toppled the regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Fidel’s brother Raul, who is now Cuba’s president, has said relations cannot be fully normalized until the embargo is gone. According to the 2015 Lightning Guides publication “Cuba: Castro, Revolution and the End of the Embargo,” the first official tightening of trade came in 1960 after the Cuban government took control of American-owned oil refineries. The embargo has been tightened and eased a little since then.
At present, according to state Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan, the U.S. can sell agricultural products such as poultry, forest products and medical supplies to Cuba. “I think the biggest problem is they don’t have the money to buy anything much,” McMillan said.
Apparently, the Cubans have enough money to buy a lot of Alabama poultry. Maria Mendez, director of Latin American Trade & Development at the Alabama State Port Authority, says 100,000 tons of Alabama chicken parts were shipped to Cuba in 2014. A few weeks ago, before Mendez headed to a trade show at Havana, a vessel docked in Mobile was loading a shipment of Cuba-bound Alabama poultry.
Raul Rodriguez, a professor at the Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies at the University of Havana, says Cubans have another term for the trade embargo – the blockade. Rodriguez recently spoke to a packed classroom at the University of Alabama, which has longstanding cooperative education and research ties to Cuba. He said that if Cuba were the size of China, the U.S. would have improved relations with his country 25 years ago.
With 11.2 million people, Cuba is certainly not China, but it is nonetheless a market for U.S. agriculture and telecommunications, and it could further develop its strong biotech sector with U.S. investment, Rodriguez said. As for human rights, Rodriguez said his country and the U.S. have agreed to discuss that issue on a regular basis and he said the Cubans have issues of their own — such as the use of force by U.S. law enforcement officers against unarmed black citizens— that they can raise in those discussions.
“You want to talk about human rights?” he said. “Let’s talk about human rights. Let’s talk about Ferguson.”
Rodriguez said his country and the U.S. have a number of contentious issues in their relationship, and some of those issues have to be settled before the embargo is lifted. The issues include legislation that allows Cubans to enter the U.S. and “are the only citizens in the world that are not deported,” he said. Other issues, he said, include a U.S. program that encourages Cuban doctors working in other countries to seek asylum in the U.S., American funding of “so-called democracy promotion programs” that the Havana government views as unwarranted interference in Cuba’s internal affairs, and what Cuba owes the U.S. for the American property the Castro regime seized after taking power. U.S. media reports put the amount at $7 billion, Rodriguez said. But he said that from the Cuban side, any negotiations on that compensation issue would likely involve the financial damage the embargo has done to Cuba.
“It’s a very tough situation,” Rodriguez said.
According to the Lightning Guides publication, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo has annually cost the U.S. $1.2 billion in “Cuban sales and exports.” The Cuban government says the embargo costs the island “about $700 million.”
Robert Olin, dean of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, which recently opened a Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship, said the embargo has not produced a regime change in Cuba, but “just hurt the average Cuban on that island who has nothing to do with … politics.
“You talk about a piece of legislation that’s been ineffective, that’s it,” Olin said.
Alabama U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, whose 1st district includes the Alabama State Port Authority, told a constituent in an email that he had recently traveled to Cuba and his agenda included meetings with “small business owners, scholars and ordinary citizens.”
To Byrne, the trip made it clear “that Cuba must continue to make progress in their infrastructure, as well as progress in the treatment of its citizens.
“I know that one day the trade embargo will be repealed, the Cuban people will engage in economic activities with the United States and Americans will be able to travel freely to Cuba,” Byrne added. “While that day is not yet here, I look forward to continuing to be a positive pro-active participant in the negotiations.”
State Veterinarian Tony Frazier says the U.S. already does business with China, Vietnam and Russia, countries where regimes have less than stellar human rights records, and he wonders why Cuba should be any different.
Frazier said he would like to visit Cuba again, and his recent trip left him with the feeling that in 10 years, Cuba will be unrecognizable and a better place for its people. He liked the absence of fear he felt in moving around Havana, he noticed so many young people with cell phones, he enjoyed a meal at a privately owned cafe that felt like a trendy hangout in a college town, and he met an elderly farmer whom the government had allowed to have a “small piece of land” where he had 10 or 12 cows.
“He was so proud of that, and so it looks like to me like they’re leaning towards opening up the acceptance of private ownership and business … and I think we need to encourage and advance that,” Frazier said.
A big advancement step would be to lift the embargo, but the upcoming presidential election year, and the presence in the White House of the man who decided to re-establish diplomatic relations in Cuba, may keep such a move on hold, particularly in a Republican-controlled Congress.
“I just think it’s increased potential for Alabama if Congress were to lift the embargo,” the agriculture commissioner John McMillan said, “but … I don’t think that’s going to happen until after Obama’s gone at least.”
“This embargo will not go away in one week,” Raul Rodriguez told his University of Alabama audience. “It will have to be dismantled little by little.”
The Embargo as Seen by Alabama congressmen
Editor’s note: Tom Gordon sent letters to Alabama’s congressional representatives about the Cuban embargo and their thoughts on ending it. In the case of Bradley Byrne, who will not answer emails from outside his district, Gordon enlisted the aid of a friend in the district who sent the query and sent back Byrne’s response as seen below. First, Gordon’s question.
Gov. Robert Bentley recently joined eight other governors in signing a letter to congressional leaders that calls for an end to the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.
Among other things, the letter says lifting the embargo will generate jobs for U.S. agriculture but it also says this: ”Expanded diplomatic relations, corporate partnerships, trade and dialogue will put us in a better position to boost democratic ideals in
Cuba. This goal has not been achieved with an outdated strategy of isolation and sanctions.”
Do you favor lifting the embargo? Please your explain your answer.
Response from Gary Palmer
Thank you for contacting me regarding U.S.-Cuba relations. I appreciate your input on this important issue.
In December 2014, President Obama signed an executive order to normalize diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba for the first time in 50 years. The State Department has since recently reopened embassy operations and upgraded the communist-led country to a midlevel rank in its list of international offenders of human trafficking. Additionally, Cuba was removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism on May 29, 2015, despite the embargo remaining in place.
Cuba is led by an oppressive regime that deprives its citizens of basic liberties that we often take for granted in the U.S. Located only 90 miles off our shore, the country is dependent on trade with human rights violators such as Venezuela and North Korea. Historically, Cuba has been an avowed enemy of the U.S. since the days of the Cold War.
Under the LIBERTAD Act of 1996, a U.S. president may only terminate the full Cuban embargo once a democratically-elected government is in power. Congress has the sole authority to remove the embargo without meeting this criterion by amending or repealing the act. The Cuban government is still the same totalitarian and violent government. While I understand the importance of free trade, I believe revitalizing relations with Cuba should occur when Cuba has a democratically elected government.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your views. Please don’t hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of any assistance.
Response from Bradley Byrne
Thank you for contacting me with regard to Cuba.
On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced his intentions to normalize relations with Cuba by opening a United States embassy in the country and appointing an ambassador. President Obama also announced he would make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba, and he called on Congress to lift a long-standing trade embargo on the country. As a part of restoring normalized relations, Cuba also released detained United States contractor Alan Gross and another CIA asset in exchange for three Cubans jailed in the United States on spying charges. On July 20, 2015, the Cuban embassy officially reopened in Washington, D.C.
I recently traveled to Cuba to see the country firsthand, visit with United States and Cuban government officials, and meet small business owners, scholars, and ordinary Cubans. It is clear that Cuba must continue to make progress in their infrastructure, as well as progress in the treatment of its citizens. I know that one day the trade embargo will be repealed, the Cuban people will engage in economic activities with the United States, and Americans will be able to freely travel to Cuba. While that day is not yet here, I look forward to continuing to be a positive, proactive participant in the negotiations. Please be assured I will keep your views in mind in the event legislation on this topic comes up for a vote in the House.
Again, thank you for contacting me on this matter. It is my great honor to serve as your Member of Congress, and it is my number one priority to represent you and the best interests of the First District of Alabama.
Response from Richard Shelby
Throughout my tenure in Congress, my position regarding U.S.-Cuban relations has been clear. It is my belief that maintaining sanctions on Cuba is necessary to keep the current regime, which has oppressed its people for more than 50 years, from bolstering itself by using revenues that would result from easing sanctions. Any funds derived from American tourism or trade will only end up in the hands of the Communist party. Furthermore, the nation will remain largely impoverished and the average Cuban citizen will experience little or no change in standard of living.
While I have supported limited humanitarian assistance in the past, I maintain that it is vital to American interests that we maintain a resolute policy toward the existing Communist regime in Cuba. Therefore, I do not support an end to the Cuban trade embargo.
It is an honor to serve as your United States senator, and I thank you again for taking the time to contact me.