Engagement versus estrangement

Congressman James Comer, a first-term Republican from the 1st District of Kentucky, just returned from a five-day trip to Cuba on a fact-finding delegation led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

[Last week], his office released a statement about the trip, which read, in part: “Congressman Comer strongly supports lifting the current trade embargo on Cuba, and will be a leader in Congress in passing legislation to reopen trade with this key neighbor of the U.S.”

U.S. Rep. Jame Comer

“The first district is a strong agriculture area,” Congressman Comer said, “and opening trade barriers for agriculture products would be a major benefit for the district and all of Kentucky.”

Congressman Comer’s story — his experience of going to Cuba, talking directly to Cubans about their lives, and deciding, unbound by party or dogma, that engagement is better than sanctions for advancing his constituents’ interests — is important.

Even more, it places him in the vital center of practical and principled thought on the conduct of U.S.-Cuba relations — which is all about exploring and securing the benefits of engagement.

Engagement has paid off diplomatically. Engagement with Cuba restored relations, reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana, and secured bilateral agreements on combatting diseases from cancer to Zika, fighting drugs and human trafficking, responding to oil spills and the other pollution threats in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida, and providing united support for the final end to Colombia’s long, bloody civil war.

Engagement is creating and supporting more, better paying jobs in the U.S. telecommunications, hospitality and travel industries, and among the Cuban-owned private-sector businesses that are providing food and lodging to travelers coming from the U.S. and elsewhere.

The benefits of engagement were expanded by U.S. policy decisions that boosted the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba to historic levels, and increased the flows of remittances to Cuban family members on the island to as much as $3 billion annually. At the same time, Cuba opened up legal work in the private sector for 25 percent of the island’s workforce, and significantly increased Wi-Fi connections, at reduced costs, for Cuba’s people.

Politically, engagement is at the center of where public opinion is among the 75 percent of the U.S. public which wants to lift the embargo, 63 percent of Cuban-Americans who oppose the embargo, and 97 percent of Cubans on the island who think normal relations with the U.S. is good for Cuba.

Helen Aguirre Ferré

With the mutually reinforcing benefits of diplomacy and economic change strengthening public support for engagement, this has opened even greater space for elected officials like Congressman Comer to build coalitions for changes in the laws governing U.S.-Cuba relations.

These coalitions have gathered in support of legislation to increase agriculture trade to Cuba, to end legal barriers to tourist travel, and to lift the embargo entirely. Passing these bills is in the U.S. national interest.

Fifty years of futility passed our eyes when we read the remarks of White House spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré in an interview Wednesday with the Spanish news agency EFE. “With all the things [Cuba] has been given,” she said, the government has not made any “concessions” within the process of normalization of bilateral relations. Before assuming office, President Trump said he would reverse the reforms and restore estrangement as the basis of U.S. policy, unless the Cubans make concessions.

This position of no negotiations until the Cubans compromise was the policy of every president since Eisenhower, except one, and all but one were disappointed.

The Trump administration is reviewing the policy. We’d like to see President Trump find a way forward that doesn’t let Congressman Comer or his constituents down.

(From Cuba Central)

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