In 2012, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., traveled to Cuba to meet with imprisoned AID worker Alan Gross, but he also carried a message from President Barack Obama to leaders in Havana. “I told them this president was genuinely committed to looking for the right opportunity to improve relationships with Cuba,” Durbin said.
In conveying that message Durbin carried the credibility of being a long-time friend of the president and a high-ranking member of the Senate. “And I told them one of the big problems of course was the American prisoner, Alan Gross.”
From there, Durbin says, the officials in Havana worked with diplomats from the Vatican on negotiations that would culminate in a nearly hour-long phone call Tuesday evening between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Durbin spoke with St. Louis Public Radio by phone from Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washingto, minutes after greeting Gross upon his return to the United States.
Over the past two years, senior White House officials say several meetings took place between U.S. and Cuban officials, most of them in Canada. Officials said the Canadian government only hosted the meetings and did not have a role in the substance of the talks.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is sharply critical of the president’s plan, saying it’s not a good idea or the right time to normalize relations with Cuba. “If you’re asking me to verify the Cuba decision based on how well everything else has gone in the president’s view of the world, I’d rest my case,” Blunt said. “We’re not anywhere near where we were in terms of foreign policy just a few years ago. Our friends are concerned, our adversaries are encouraged and I really don’t see any reason why he thinks, in the waning days of Raul and Fidel Castro, that this is the time to think that somehow they’re going to allow American values to spread through Cuba.”
But Durbin said that -- after 55 years of trying to get rid of the Castro family and communism in Cuba -- it’s time for a new approach. “I have confidence that if Cuba is open to trade, to travel, to the exchange of new ideas that that is going to be a positive force for change, far better than our failed foreign policy,” he said.
At the same time that U.S. and Cuban negotiators were discussing issues of concern to both countries, Durbin was leading the Illinois-Cuba Working Group, comprised of officials from several of the state’s agricultural businesses and associations. The group pushed the administration to normalize trade relations with Cuba. “Certainly those of us who have been working for agricultural exports have always viewed Cuba as an obvious export destination. We’ve had luck in the past, but we’ve always had our hands tied when it came to the transactions of how they’re going to be paid for – the basic credit relationships,” Durbin said.
Blunt says that while there is more trade with Cuba that affects people in Missouri than in the past, he still has his concerns. Blunt says he negotiated the current “cash and carry” policy that requires Cuba to pay up front for goods purchased from U.S. producers. “What so often happens in the efforts to normalize relationships with Cuba is the country trying to normalize those relationships winds up with a whole lot of debt that the Cuban government will not pay,” Blunt said.
A senior White House official said that among the key components of the president’s new policy toward Cuba are measures that deal with authorized transactions including:
· U.S. institutions will be permitted to open correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions to facilitate the processing of authorized transactions.
· The regulatory definition of the statutory term “cash in advance” will be revised to specify that it means “cash before transfer of title;" this will provide more efficient financing of authorized trade with Cuba.
· U.S. credit and debit cards will be permitted for use by travelers to Cuba.
· These measures will improve the speed, efficiency, and oversight of authorized payments between the United States and Cuba.
Durbin says he sees the potential for trade to expand dramatically between the U.S. and Cuba, especially with new provisions to ease financial transactions.
Zach Kinne, policy director for the National Corn Growers Association says that U.S. sanctions requiring Cuba to pay cash in advance and route those payments through a third party is a major limiting factor in expanding trade with Cuba. “It prevented direct transactions between American banks and Cuban banks so, by making the changes on the financial side, I think will be a huge step in making us more competitive in serving that market,” he said.
Kinne says the National Corn Growers have long-called for normalizing trade relations with Cuba. “So, we see this as a positive step in that direction and we think that Cuba is a logical market for U.S. food and agricultural exports with their 11 million consumers 90 miles off the coast.”
Reaction to the president’s decision does not break cleanly along party lines. While many Republicans criticize the plan, some support it. Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, who says he’s one of the few members of Congress to travel to Cuba, issued a statement in favor of the plan shortly after the president’s announcement.
“As the second largest exporter in agriculture commodities, Illinois relies on trade relations that allow our products to be sold to the rest of the world. So at a time when America is yearning for more manufacturing jobs and to produce more, improving trade relations with Cuba will only further this goal while helping to empower the people of Cuba.”
Congressman Lacy Clay, D-University City, has also traveled to Cuba and supports the president’s plan to normalize relations. “By establishing normalized diplomatic and financial relations with Cuba, President Obama has also opened the door to grow American jobs by greatly enhancing agricultural exports and trade in life sciences technology which are critical to economic growth in the St. Louis region and across Missouri.”
The president has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba on re-establishing diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1961.
In January, a U.S. delegation will travel to Havana for the next round of talks with Cuban officials, but a White House official told St. Louis Public Radio there are no plans at this time for President Obama to travel to Cuba or for President Castro to visit the U.S.