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Government, Politics & Issues

Area Illinois Republican congressmen split over warmer relations with Cuba

Cuba has a population of approximately 11 million. At the closest point it is 93 miles from the island to the United States.

President Barack Obama’s move to re-establish full diplomatic ties with Cuba, including last week’s announcement that the two countries plan to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, is intensifying congressional debate over the best way forward: continued isolation by the U.S. or engagement, with increased trade with the Castro government.

While area Democrats quickly cheered last December’s announcement by the White House for plans to drop the embargo and renew relations with Havana, area Republicans hold widely different perspectives on how the U.S. should proceed.

Nationally, the debate over Cuba, the embargo and the Castro government does not lend itself easily to more traditional partisan divides usually found on Capitol Hill. Some Democrats agree with Cuban-American colleagues in opposing any improved relations with what they see as a repressive government. Some Republicans agree with the White House and have long believed that ending the embargo would help build pressure within Cuba against the country’s military government.

The differences can be seen in the views of two downstate Illinois Republican congressmen.

Rodney Davis: Open the doors

Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, actively supports dropping the embargo. He says the U.S. needs to act while older Cuban citizens are still around who remember when the two countries had good relations. He also says keeping the embargo in place works against U.S. long-term interests: “I’m afraid if we continue down this path of isolationism that we’re not going to be able to take advantage of those unique, personal experiences that many of the Cuban people have to build up that relationship we once had with Cuba, that I think will free the Cuban people.”

Credit U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis' website
Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville

The 13th district representative traveled to Cuba in 2005 when he was on the staff of U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville. “I saw a country that is the epitome of the failures of socialism and communism. It’s such a controlled country, and I saw what the Cuban people need the most is freedom,” Davis told St. Louis Public Radio. Davis joins others who say the Castros, Raul and Fidel, have used the embargo “as a crutch” to blame America for the country’s ills “when really the form of government that the Castros have implemented is the reason why the Cuban people suffer on a daily basis,” Davis said.

He sees U.S. investment in Cuba as the quickest way to bring about change on the island. “It gives us an opportunity to show the Cuban people that America cares and that the Castros can’t continue to blame America for the problems that the Cuban people experience, which is exactly what they do via billboards” in what Davis calls amateurish attempts at propaganda.

Shimkus did not come away from that 2005 trip with the same sense of urgency to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba as did Davis.  Shimkus says he fears that normalizing relations with the Castro regime will come at the expense of "American interests and values."  He also says the Obama administration "must do more to ensure that any influx of American tourism and trade dollars benefit the Cuban people and not the regime' military and intelligence services."  

Shimkus does not share Davis' sense of urgency to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba.  Saying he remains concerned that normalizing relations with the Castro regime is coming at the expense of “American interests and values.”  He also says the administration “must do more to ensure that any influx of American tourism and trade dollars benefit the Cuban people and not the regime’s military and intelligence services.”  

Mike Bost: Too soon

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, sees the passage of time in Cuba differently, especially for Cuban Americans who lost relatives and property at the hands of the Castro government. “We’re not a full generation away from the Castro regime going in at gunpoint and committing heinous crimes against its own people,” Bost said in an interview. “It wasn’t a war, it was a case where the government came in and decided to take property, take lives of people and violate human rights.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, prepares for his guest appearance on St. Louis on the Air in 2014.
Credit Rebecca Smith / St. Louis Public Radio
Mike Bost, R-Muyphysboro

Bost said he simply does not agree with the idea that the U.S. is going to ignore that history. “We’re going to say OK, we’re going to open up trade with you and we’re going to forget that you ran people out of your country, that you committed these crimes and that you’re still in power and that maybe 50 years just makes us feel OK about that.” Bost quickly adds, “We don’t feel OK about it.”

He says “that sanctions can still work, if handled correctly” and if the U.S. works with other countries. He also strongly discounts the benefit to the U.S. of increased trade with Cuba. He says the market there “is minimal in comparison to the damage of personal lives that are affected here in the United States.”

For Bost, the debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba is personal. In explaining his position, he looks to Raul Ayala, a Carbondale businessman and long-time friend. Ayala, now 72, fled Cuba as a teen in 1960 after the Castro government seized his family’s flour mill, one of only two in the country at the time. Even though his relatives had helped topple dictator Fulgencio Batista, they were targeted because his grandparents were “capitalists.” He said he thinks President Obama is simply looking for a “legacy” issue in the push to renew relations with Cuba.

That position aligns with many Cuba Americans in Congress, who oppose re-establishing relations without the Cuban government first opening up and allowing citizens freedom and also attempting to reconcile with families whose property was seized more than 50 years ago. Ayala says most Americans simply do not understand the truth about Castro or the struggle to oust Batista; and he politely, but repeatedly, urges those who want to know to watch the documentary “Cuba, the Forgotten Revolution,” distributed by American Public Television.

Davis and Bost are friends and share similar views on several issues, but their perspectives on the future of U.S. policy toward Cuba shows how difficult the debate in Congress will be on lifting the embargo, easing travel restrictions and increasing trade -- all of which require congressional approval.

Isolation or engagement

Tom Gjelten, author of the book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, has written widely on life in Cuba and the Castro government. He’s also been to the island more than a dozen times doing both research and as a correspondent for National Public Radio. In a recent interview, Gjelten said, unlike Eastern Europe and Poland specifically where Americans had a significant amount of engagement in Polish society that was “very important factor in loosening the control of the communist regime,” we haven’t seen what that kind of U.S. involvement in Cuba might do.

“On the other hand, you know, America is not the only country in the world; and every other country on the planet has been engaged in Cuba over the last 50 years; and it has not had the effect that advocates of engagement would like to see.”

He outlines two arguments on the Cuban question: “You can argue on the basis of all those countries that have been engaged with Cuba, that engagement does not work, or you can look at the fact that the United States has been isolating Cuba for more than 50 years and yet the Castros are still firmly in power, and you can say that isolation doesn’t work.”

Gjelten says the explanation of the way things are in Cuba has to do with internal factors: “It doesn’t have to do with whether the outside world is engaging Cuba or isolating Cuba.” Gjelten says advocates on both sides are “exaggerating the importance of outside pressure on Cuba.”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., helped negotiate the requirement that Cuba pay cash up-front for any goods purchased from the U.S. more than 15 years ago in the first real change in the embargo since its imposition in the early 1960s. Blunt is a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s efforts to ease trade restrictions with Cuba. He argues the Castro government does not have a good credit history and has left many other countries “holding the bag” on unpaid debts for goods.  

Blunt also argues that the White House has already “given away” what he sees as the greatest tool for leverage to “modify the behavior of a post Castro government,” namely recognition itself. “We have now recognized a repressive government that has little to offer as long as the Castros are in control, and we didn’t get anything for it except the ability to give them cash and credit.”

Gjelten says indications are that the Cuban government will work “very hard to stay in power.” He says that since last December’s announcement about warmer relations with Cuba, authorities in Havana, appear to have recognized “that there is some risk with this more open relationship with the United States.” With more American tourists visiting the island and greater engagement in trade, Cuban citizens may demand greater freedoms. Gjelten says Cuban authorities have reacted with more repression and tighter controls on dissidents.

“Perhaps thinking that now the United States is sort of committed to a new relationship with Cuba, they won’t have to worry that mistreatment of dissidents will bring some sort of punishment or repercussions from the United States,” he said, “because that’s not part of the arrangement anymore.”

Blunt’s role in Senate leadership and position on the Intelligence Committee may give him significant influence on any plans the administration hopes to move through Congress, from legislation required to fully lift the embargo to authorizing funds to repair and upgrade the building housing the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. It will also take Senate action to confirm any ambassador the president might nominate to Cuba.

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