WASHINGTON – The reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba on July 20 pushes the United States a giant step closer to ending a long-standing trade embargo and travel restrictions that some Minnesota politicians and businesses have been lobbying hard to remove.
"You can't get rid of a trade embargo without first having an embassy," Sen. Amy Klobuchar D-Minn., told the Star Tribune.
Klobuchar is lead sponsor of a bill to end the embargo and allow U.S. businesses to sell products in Cuba for the first time in half a century.
Klobuchar spent recent weeks trying to add cosponsors to her trade embargo bill in anticipation of an embassy announcement President Obama made Wednesday. She now has 17 cosponsors, including Minnesota Democratic colleague Al Franken and three Republicans.
"I'm supporting legislation to remove trade barriers between our countries, and I'm also pressing for another bill to lift travel restrictions to Cuba," Franken said in a statement.
In statements to the Star Tribune, House Republicans Tom Emmer and Erik Paulsen signaled support for new U.S.-Cuba trade.
"A new embassy needs to focus on boosting open markets so the Cuban people can access more American goods and services," Paulsen said.
Emmer said in a statement that he sees "a real opportunity for a positive, open trading partnership between these two countries. The potential benefits for Minnesota exporters are immense, and what is good for Minnesota is good for our country."
Cargill, one of Minnesota's biggest corporations, has taken a leading national role in trying to end the embargo.
Devry Boughner Vorwerk, Cargill's vice president of government relations, helped organize the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba. It includes more than two dozen trade associations representing virtually every crop and meat produced in the U.S.
"This is a great day for the U.S. and Cuban people," Vorwerk told the Star Tribune Wednesday. "Diplomatic engagement drives ties."
Cargill and the agriculture coalition are now pushing for adequate congressional funding for the reopened embassy and fast approval of a new Cuban ambassador.
Some remain leery
Embargo-lifting legislation has yet to go through the Senate Banking Committee in the Republican-controlled chamber. Strong opposition exists to ending the embargo among members of the Senate and House with close ties to Cuban-American constituents.
Fidel Castro's communist revolution from 1953 to 1959 overthrew a U.S.-backed government and eventually drove many Cubans from their homeland.
Republicans such as Rep. John Kline of Minnesota are leery.
"While congressman Kline supports new opportunities for American businesses and has a strong record of supporting trade and efforts to grow jobs in America, he wants all Cubans to enjoy a free democracy but is not confident this administration will follow through on its promises to hold the Castro dictatorship regime accountable," a Kline spokesman said.
Klobuchar said she hopes the embassy reopening combines with business and tourism interests and puts public pressure on the Senate to act on her bill.
Minnesotans generally view reopening trade with Cuba as an opportunity to increase exports, Klobuchar said as she traveled the state on Wednesday. They also want freedom to travel to Cuba.
The Minnesota Orchestra performed in Cuba in May.
Democratic Reps. Tim Walz, Betty McCollum, Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison offered statements of support for increasing U.S.-Cuban relations. Rep. Collin Peterson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"Opening this embassy is another step forward toward normalizing our relations with Cuba and, in turn, opening new markets for Minnesota farmers and businesses," Walz said.
Even with a reopened embassy, McCollum said Republican reluctance could hamstring open trade.
"I support trade with Cuba," she said, "but not much will help Minnesota businesses expand opportunities in Cuba until Republicans in Congress end their mindless support for the Cold War-era trade embargo."
Calling Klobuchar's embargo-ending bill "a gold standard," Vorwerk said the agriculture coalition supports all current congressional efforts to open Cuba to U.S. trade. But the group is going beyond the Capitol with its call to action.
"We have established a group to work with presidential campaigns," Vorwerk said. "We're planning outreach to [candidates] to reflect our views."
That effort fit with Klobuchar's prediction that ending the Cuban trade embargo will become "a major issue" in the 2016 election. But, she added, "I'm convinced it will pass at some point."
Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123