Government & Politics

Claire McCaskill says U.S. overture to Cuba has Havana government worried

U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri (left), Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia spoke last Tuesday at a news conference in Havana, while visiting Cuba on a trip arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a nonprofit group that advocates lifting the U.S. embargo on trade with the island. Now back in the United States, McCaskill says some elements in Cuba may be undercutting efforts to normalize relations with the United States.
U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri (left), Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia spoke last Tuesday at a news conference in Havana, while visiting Cuba on a trip arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a nonprofit group that advocates lifting the U.S. embargo on trade with the island. Now back in the United States, McCaskill says some elements in Cuba may be undercutting efforts to normalize relations with the United States. The Associated Press

The Castro regime is busy trying to tamp down sky-high expectations among Cubans eager for a closer relationship with the United State, Sen. Claire McCaskill told reporters after a trip to the communist-run Caribbean island.

The Missouri Democrat was among the first American lawmakers to visit Cuba after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December that the two countries would move to normalize relations.

“Most Cubans really did feel like it was a turning of a page,” McCaskill said Monday in a conference call with reporters. “They see this opening as a way they can build on positive reforms.”

That reaction apparently has made the Cuban government a little nervous, the senator said.

“We heard some concerns by some that there were some in the Cuban government working against this in spite of the fact that Raul Castro had made this announcement, that there were some doubters,” McCaskill said.

McCaskill said she asked Cuba’s foreign minister “point-blank” over lunch: “Are there people in the government who are working against this?”

He reassured her, saying, “There is no important government official that I am aware of that is opposed to us going down this path.”

Only time will tell, McCaskill said.

“The Cuban government has used our lack of relationship with them and the embargo as an excuse for a lack of prosperity and progress in Cuba,” McCaskill said. “It’s a phony excuse, but it’s an excuse that has been fed to the Cuban people decade after decade.”

That is why the Cuban people are so excited, she said.

“The (Cuban) government is worried because they know they’ve used this embargo as their excuse and once its gone, they have no more excuses,” McCaskill said.

The more than 50-year-old embargo on trade with Cuba needs to end, McCaskill said. She said she would support the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, a bill that would lift the embargo that was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. Klobuchar and Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, traveled with McCaskill to Cuba.

The bill has a few Republican co-sponsors but faces a battle in Congress, where impassioned opponents include Cuban-American Sens. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, as well as Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

McCaskill said lobbying from agriculture and business interests will be key if the bill is to have a chance to pass the Republican-controlled Congress.

“I won’t say all the agriculture interests in my state are Republican, but I think the majority of them are,” McCaskill said. “Certainly the Farm Bureau is a Republican organization. I think the sooner the agriculture interests put pressure on some of the Republican members of the House, the quicker they will be able to get this passed.”

The senators’ visit was arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a nonprofit group that advocates lifting the embargo and that previously has paid for members of Congress to travel to Cuba. McCaskill and her husband, developer Joseph Shepard, who accompanied her on the trip, paid their own way.

McCaskill said the trip was a way for her to assess how farmers and other businesses in her state might benefit from opening Cuban markets to U.S. agricultural products.

Before traveling, she met with trade groups representing Missouri producers of rice, pork, soybeans, corn and poultry. She also met with Cuba’s top representative in the U.S., Jose Ramon Cabanas Rodriguez, the chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

In Cuba, McCaskill, Klobuchar and Warner met with Cuban government officials and diplomats from Europe and Asia, as well as small-business owners, farmers, artists and religious leaders.

“The warmth and affection from the Cuban people was palpable,” McCaskill said.

McCaskill said she was able to speak to some Cubans without any government officials present, including hip-hop artists who told her they had produced songs about racism and other problems in the country.

“People were very forthright about their frustrations with the Cuban government and their dreams and hopes for the future for their families,” she said.

McCaskill did not meet with any members of Cuba’s dissident movement, but she stressed that her support for lifting the embargo doesn’t mean she’s selling out Cuba’s dissidents in return for potential trade opportunities.

“There is nothing about me wanting a market for Missouri agriculture in Cuba that means I don’t oppose human rights violations by the Cuban government,” she said.

There is precedent for the U.S. to cultivate relationships and deals with countries “that don’t live up to our standards” in terms of human rights, McCaskill added, citing China as an example.

The senator posted photos to her Instagram account showing classic American cars on the streets of Cuba and documenting her stops at an individually owned farm, a church where she attended Mass and a Jewish synagogue in Havana. The synagogue had an arch that made her miss St. Louis, McCaskill said.

And yes, McCaskill and her husband did buy some Cuban cigars, at about $10 a pop.

To reach Lindsay Wise, call 202-383-6007 or send email to lwise@mcclatchydc.com. Follow her on Twitter: @lindsaywise.

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