Secretary of State John Kerry's raising of the American flag at the U.S. Embassy in Havana Friday marked an historic moment in U.S.-Cuba relations. Congress holds the key to a real new beginning in bilateral ties, however, as it would have to change laws to lift the 54-year-old U.S. trade embargo on the Communist island nation.
Members of Congress were swift to react to the flag-raising ceremony - in different ways. Some members of Congress traveled to Havana with Kerry and said they were proud to be on hand to witness the event, such as Democratic Representatives Barbara Lee, Karen Bass and Jim McGovern.
In a statement, Democratic House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who did not travel with Kerry, said "after more than half a century without embassies in each other’s countries, we are opening a new chapter of possibility for a new, more productive relationship with Cuba that can support and advance key American priorities – including human rights, counter-narcotics cooperation, business opportunities for American companies, migration, family unification, and cultural and faith-based exchanges."
The only Republican member of the delegation traveling to Cuba was Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Flake said he hopes the symbolic move will hasten the end of travel restrictions on Americans going to Cuba. “The more U.S. travel to Cuba, the better,” he said.
Dissidents shut out?
A number of Republican House members and Senators, though, criticized the Obama administration’s push towards normalizing ties with Cuba. Among them is Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, who is a candidate for his party’s presidential nomination.
In remarks Friday to the Foreign Policy Initiative, Rubio said Obama administration concessions to both Iran and Cuba endanger the United States. He said the fact that Cuban dissidents were not invited to the flag-raising ceremony shows “just how backward this policy shift has turned out to be.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, also a Republican, joined in the criticism, saying Cubans who have been struggling against the Castro regime deserved to have seen the American flag hoisted in Havana. Secretary of State Kerry met with dissidents at a separate reception later Friday.
But despite the human rights concerns of some lawmakers who see a normalization of ties as a reward for the Castro government, the focus of U.S.-Cuba relations is now likely to shift away from the executive branch to Congress.
Bipartisan push to ease trade embargo, travel restrictions
Three bills are already pending in Congress – one that would permanently lift the travel ban on U.S. citizens to Cuba, and two that would chip away at parts of the trade embargo.
A number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers are working together to push for legislation that would ease parts of the trade embargo, and there are powerful business and agricultural interests behind opening up relations with Cuba.
Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar said 50 years of the embargo have not secured U.S. interests in Cuba, but have disadvantaged American businesses by restricting commerce with a market of 11 million people just 144 kilometers from U.S. shores.
It is not clear when the three bills will go to the floor of either chamber for a vote, since both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have come out against normalization of ties with Cuba.
They argue that President Barack Obama has not secured substantial concessions from Cuban President Raul Castro on ongoing human rights violations or on property expropriated from U.S. citizens.