MIAMI – Following his second trip to Cuba in a year, GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer took his effort to lift the Cuban embargo to south Florida, the nation's epicenter of opposition to the idea.
The freshman Republican from Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District was in Havana in mid-February, leading House Republicans and Democrats. They met with foreign ministers and trade officials before returning to Miami to privately sway Fortune 500 companies — including Medtronic, with strong Minnesota ties — to help push the effort on Capitol Hill.
Emmer, who last went to Havana in 2015, says he sees hope for a vote this year.
Wherever he goes, Emmer said he senses a political softening on the issue. And President Obama's announcement Thursday that he will make a historic trip to Cuba in March could build momentum. The president has pushed for normalizing relations with Cuba, and will be the first U.S. president to visit the country in nearly 90 years.
"It's so different from what it was. I'm just a guy from Minnesota, but everybody has always said, 'Well you know south Florida is all probably pro-blockade,' " Emmer said in an interview after his Cuban trip, referring to the embargo.
Emmer said he once believed Cuban-Americans were nearly unanimous on the issue. But over time, he found they are far from it. "Business owners down here recognize it's a matter of when and not if," he said.
But south Florida remains the epicenter of anti-Castro sentiment and support for the embargo. Soon after Emmer left the state, Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called Obama's upcoming visit "absolutely shameful." In a statement, she said: "For more than 50 years Cubans have been fleeing the Castro regime, yet the country which grants them refuge, the United States, has now decided to quite literally embrace their oppressors."
Through new connections and glad-handing in south Florida, Emmer has found a well-funded and politically connected ally.
Mike Fernandez is a Cuban-American Florida health care executive who has given tens of millions of dollars to Republicans. He says he's disappointed in many Republican politicians who continue to hold out against lifting the embargo — including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a presidential hopeful, and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Fernandez was born and raised in Cuba and left at age 12 with his parents after facing persecution. For decades, he said, he was among the Cuban-American hard-liners supportive of the trade embargo, but a visit in 2000 to see his dying grandfather changed his mind.
"I realized that the greatest ally that the Cuban government had was the embargo because it was a way of explaining to the people why nothing worked in Cuba," he said. "There are no nails to hammer a board, and that's a result of the embargo, or this month we don't have any chicken, and that's a result of the embargo. It became a great cover of the great inefficiencies of that government."
In the 2000s, Fernandez helped launch a number of small-business incubators in Cuba, cooperating with the Catholic Church and some universities, to train people to start small businesses.
'A Cuban against embargo?'
In recent months, he has worked with Emmer to sway Republicans on Capitol Hill. He said he often shocks people with his position.
"There were at least two dozen meetings in Washington where a senator or a congressman responded to me, staring at me like I was a three-headed snake, saying, 'Wait a minute, you're a Cuban who is against the embargo?' " he said. "I would go and explain to them why and they would say to me, 'You know … I am totally open for a change.' "
Obama's 2014 executive actions to relax restrictions with Cuba boosted the cause nationally with politicians because so many local businesses stand to profit from better relations with the island.
"It fundamentally changed the way Cuban policies are debated," said Tomas Bilbao, a D.C.-based consultant who has worked on Cuban issues for a decade. "It helps break this myth, especially if you're a Republican, that you're somehow going to be in trouble with Miami if you support it. Let's face it, half a million Cuban-Americans are boarding flights to Cuba every year, and that's only increasing."
Obama trip criticized
In light of Obama's plan to travel there in March, the issue received renewed attention on the presidential campaign trail — particularly among Republicans who are against relaxing relationships with the island nation.
Rubio pressed Obama to reconsider his travel plans, saying in a letter it will cause "disastrous consequences" because the Castro regime has not undertaken "meaningful reforms."
"Having an American president go to Cuba simply for the sake of going there, without the United States getting anything in return, is both counterproductive and damaging to our national security interests," Rubio said.
Emmer's Minnesota ally on this front, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is leading the Senate effort to lift trade restrictions.
She has made the business case for the shift, saying in a statement that it would "boost U.S. exports and allow Cubans greater access to American-made goods and products."
For Emmer, in this second trip to Cuba in a year, the issue is growing increasingly personal and urgent. He is trying to sell the idea to Midwestern farmers at agricultural conferences and dispatching his senior staffers to speak at D.C. forums in favor of the bill.
"Aren't the Castros going to be fine whether there is a blockade or isn't?" Emmer asked. "It's about the humanitarian stuff. … It's about the Cuban people."