Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On U.S. Policy On Cuba

The election of Donald Trump as our next President has ignited a rash of speculation about the future of U.S. policy toward Cuba. 

What we know is that President-elect Trump has said contradictory things about President Obama’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, as he has about some other issues. 

Among other things, he has tweeted that he plans to reverse the Obama administration’s regulatory changes relaxing restrictions on U.S. engagement with Cuba unless the Cuban government agrees to a “better deal”. 

Despite that, we don’t actually know what he will do.  I hope before making a decision he listens to advocates on both sides of the issue, including Cuban Americans, a growing majority of whom support the resumption of diplomatic relations. 

As someone who has traveled to Cuba many times and seen firsthand the benefits of the policy of engagement for both the Cuban people and American people, I will do whatever I can to encourage the President-elect to continue that policy.

The decision to resume diplomatic relations has been enthusiastically supported here and around the world.  The number of Americans traveling to Cuba has risen dramatically.  U.S. airline companies and cruise ships are carrying passengers there.  Hotel deals have been signed. 

Yet the same five Members of Congress – three in the Senate and two in the House – have steadfastly opposed the new opening with Cuba.  They continually say that the only Cubans who have benefited from the new opening are Raul Castro and the Cuban military. 

The Cuban government has benefited, that is unavoidable.  It happens in any country with state-owned enterprises with which we have diplomatic and commercial relations, of which there are many. 

But it is false and misleading to say that they alone have benefited.  In fact, the Cuban people, particularly Cuban entrepreneurs, have benefited and so have the American people.  And they overwhelmingly want this opening to continue.

These Members of Congress have insisted, year after year, that we should continue a policy of sanctions and isolation “until the Castro regime makes significant and irreversible progress on human rights and political freedom for the Cuban people.”  Perhaps that is what President-elect Trump means by a “better deal”.

Having met many times with Cuban government officials, as well as with Cuban dissidents who have been persecuted and imprisoned, no one is a stronger defender of democracy and human rights there than I am. 

Like President Obama, we all want the Cuban people to be able to express themselves freely, and to choose their own leaders in a free and fair election. 

I resent the assertions of those who remain wedded to the old failed policy, that to favor diplomatic relations is “appeasement” to the Castro government.

I am as outraged as anyone when Cubans who peacefully advocate for human rights and democracy are harassed, threatened, arrested and abused, just as I am when such violations of human rights occur in other countries, including by governments whose armed forces and police annually receive hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. 

For 55 years we have tried the approach of isolating and pressuring Cuba that is advocated by a dwindling, albeit passionate, minority in Congress.  That approach has failed miserably.  The Castro family and their shrinking circle of aging revolutionaries is still in power, and Cuba is still a country where political dissent is not tolerated.

No one who knows the Castro government expected the resumption of diplomatic relations to quickly result in an end to repression or free elections.  Those who label the policy of engagement a failure after just two years because the Castro government continues to persecute its opponents are either naïve or not to be taken seriously.  

Change in Cuba will happen incrementally, as it does in most countries.  But I have no doubt that in a lot fewer than 55 years the Cuban people will have a lot more freedom than they have had for the past 55 years. 

The record is indisputable:  bullying the Cuban government, making threats and ultimatums, have achieved nothing in more than half a century.  In fact, it isolated the United States and damaged our own interests. 

Consider for a moment what it would mean if we did what these Members of Congress advocate. 

Not only would we have no embassy in Cuba; to be consistent, we would withdraw our ambassadors and impose a unilateral embargo against China, Vietnam, Russia, Ethiopia, and many other countries where human rights are routinely violated, where political opponents, journalists, and human rights defenders are imprisoned and tortured, where there is no such thing as a fair trial, where civil society organizations are threatened and harassed, and where dissent is severely punished.

And when we withdraw others will happily fill the vacuum, as they have in Cuba, which trades with countries around the world, including with many of our closest allies.  In fact, I recall meeting in Havana with the ambassadors of at least a dozen European and Asian countries.  They told me how much they like our embargo because their companies don’t have to compete with American businesses.

Is that what these isolationist Members of Congress want, or are they just concerned about human rights in Cuba?  Would they rather have Cubans buy rice grown in China, or in Louisiana?  Would they rather have Cubans buy milk from New Zealand, or from the United States? 

Would they prefer that China and Russia build ports and airports in Cuba, while we lower the flag at our Embassy, pound our chests, and demand that the Cuban government relinquish power?  That argument is as illogical as it is inconsistent.

For 55 years, Americans have been able to travel freely to Iran, Russia, Vietnam – any country in the world – but not to Cuba, which is only 90 miles away.  The resumption of diplomatic relations changed that. 

Last year more than half a million Americans visited Cuba, and this year the number is even higher.  But these Members of Congress want to turn back the clock and make it a crime for Americans to travel to one country in the world: Cuba. 

Fortunately, far more Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate support the right of Americans to travel freely to Cuba, and the right of U.S. farmers to sell their products on credit to Cuban buyers, which is still barred by the embargo.

And the ability of Cuban private businesses, who are already benefiting directly from the new opening with the United States.  They will benefit even more when the U.S. embargo – a failed, self-defeating, vindictive policy if there ever was one – is finally ended.  Those who continue to defend the embargo should listen to these people.  I hope President-elect Trump will listen to them.

The purpose of a policy of engagement is to protect and defend the interests of the United States and the American people, and to promote our values and our products.  Diplomatic relations is not a reward to a foreign government. 

Do the isolationists think that our Embassy in Russia is a reward to President Putin, or that having an ambassador in Moscow somehow conveys that we agree with President Putin’s corrupt, repressive policies?  Does anyone think that Russia’s embassy in Washington is somehow a reward to the United States or to President Obama?  Does anyone think that the Cuban government regards its ambassador here as a reward to us?

The United States has interests in every country, even if it is just to stand up for the rights of Americans who travel, study, or work overseas.  But there are many other reasons, like promoting trade and investment, protecting national security, law enforcement cooperation, and stopping the spread of contagious diseases. 

We either believe in the benefits of diplomacy or we don’t.  We either empower our diplomats, or we don’t.   Cuba, after a year of difficult negotiations, agreed to reopen embassies.  Americans are traveling to Cuba in record numbers, including representatives of American companies, chambers of commerce, and state and local government officials. 

Our two governments have signed new agreements paving the way for cooperation on a wide range of issues, from the resumption of regular postal and commercial airline service, to cooperation on law enforcement and search and rescue. 

I understand that this is an emotional issue for some Cuban-American families, including some who are Members of Congress.  But after 55 years, survey after survey shows that most Cuban Americans support the new policy of engagement.  They want the United States to have an Embassy in Havana.  

There is a time for family politics and there is a time for what is in the interest of the nation as a whole.  Diplomatic relations serve the national interest. 

I urge these Members of Congress to put what is in the interests of the American people above their personal interests, and listen to the overwhelming majority of the Cuban and American people who want the policy of engagement to continue because they believe it is the best hope for a free and prosperous Cuba. 

And I urge President-elect Trump to carefully weigh the pros and cons of this issue.  I believe that if he follows his instincts, if he listens to Cuban private entrepreneurs, he too will conclude that it makes no sense to return to a failed policy of isolation. 

That policy has been used by Cuban officials as an excuse to justify their grip on power and their failed economic policies, it has divided the Cuban and American people, and no other country in this hemisphere supports it. 

The Cuban and American people share much in common: our history, our cultures, our families, our ideals, and our hopes for the future.  We are neighbors whose economies are increasingly intertwined, and we should no longer be isolated from one another.

As the Castro era nears its end, our policy today is focused on the next generation of Cuban entrepreneurs, activists, students, and leaders.  They are Cuba’s future, and we should endeavor to engage with them in every way that we can. 

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