11.20.19

Statement On The United States And Cuba

Congressional Record

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, since the onset of the Trump presidency, the White House has issued a steady stream of executive orders to reverse the policy of engagement with Cuba begun by President Obama.  Those decisions have largely curtailed travel by law abiding Americans to Cuba who seek to participate in people-to-people exchanges, patronize Cuban private businesses, and otherwise experience Cuban culture. 

Cuba is the only country in the world to which Americans cannot travel freely, other than North Korea, because President Trump apparently believes it is his sole prerogative to tell Americans where they can travel and spend their own money.

I have spoken about the need for engagement with Cuba many times.  It is in our national interest because our past policy of unilateral sanctions and isolation – enforced for more than half a century – failed to achieve any of its objectives, and because engagement with the people of other countries is the way we promote our values and protect our interests. 

This is especially true when the foreign government is one with which we have profound disagreements, like Russia, China, Egypt, Turkey – it is a long list.  But no one is proposing that we prevent Americans from traveling to those countries, and if they did it would be strongly opposed by Republicans and Democrats alike. 

Today, our Embassy in Havana is operating on a shoestring.  Whereas there used to be more than 50 direct hire staff, today there are fewer than 18.  The Cuban Embassy in Washington has also been reduced to a shell of what it used to be.  As a result, the ability of both governments to process visas and conduct diplomacy is at a virtual standstill. 

Cubans who seek visas to travel to the U.S. today to participate in educational programs, cultural, entrepreneurial, or scientific exchanges have to travel to Trinidad, Mexico, or some other country to apply at our embassies there.  The cost to do so far exceeds what the vast majority of Cubans can afford, so travel by Cubans to the U.S. has been reduced to a trickle compared to what it was before.

The White House has curtailed most air and sea travel to Cuba, so travel by Americans has also plummeted.  This has wreaked havoc on fledgling Cuban private businesses, which depend on American customers.  The Administration seems utterly unconcerned, focused instead on punishing the Cuban Government for its support of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.  This is nothing new to the Cuban authorities, and it empowers hardliners in the Cuban Government who opposed engagement with the United States in the first place and who are more comfortable building alliances with counterparts in Russia, China, and North Korea with whom they share a common ideology and disdain for the United States.

I recognize that the Trump Administration has no reluctance to hold Cuba to a standard that it does not hold for other authoritarian regimes.  In fact, if President Trump were consistent he would be praising his Cuban counterpart as a friend or great leader, the way he praises Kim Jung Un, Xi Jinping, Abdel Fattah al Sisi, Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other autocrats. 

But despite this hypocrisy, why don’t we at least increase the number of consular officers at our embassies so Americans and Cubans can visit each other’s countries?  I understand that we have yet to determine the cause of illnesses suffered by U.S. Embassy personnel in Cuba, for which there is no evidence implicating the Cuban Government despite kneejerk claims by some to the contrary.  But the last such incident was more than a year ago, and there are certainly U.S. Foreign Service Officers who would welcome the opportunity to serve in Havana.  Both governments should be working to create favorable conditions for re-staffing each other’s consular services so they can better serve the people of our two countries. 

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