A lot has been said and written about my recent trip to Cuba with my colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. While much of the initial media interest rightfully focused on the historic meeting with former Cuban President Fidel Castro, on April 7, along with my colleagues CBC Chair Barbara Lee and Rep. Laura Richardson, that event marked the end of a productive, five-day series of meetings on America's trade relationship with Cuba. Because I chair a subcommittee that will hold the first congressional hearing that will further examine the status of America's trade relationship with Cuba, I am taking this opportunity to share with you the proverbial 'rest of the story.'
While it is true that I enthusiastically support the Obama Administration's recent announcement of progressive policy changes that ease travel restrictions for Cuban Americans, allows cash remittances from Cuban Americans to family members in Cuba and provides American telecommunications providers the opportunity to establish cable and satellite telecommunications facilities that link the U.S. and Cuba, I believe much more is needed. Far from being ill informed, as some voices on the right have suggested, my views on the inevitable forward march of democracy in Cuba is shared by a diverse, bipartisan array of House and Senate leaders.
My support for an expanded trade relationship with Cuba goes back several years. Most notably, the vote I cast in support of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, a bill signed into law by President Clinton in October, 2000, that lifted sanctions on sales of agricultural commodities and medicine. While our party suffered an epic loss of the White House only a few weeks later, within five years after that bill became law, total sales of farm products to Cuba dramatically increased from virtually zero to $380 million by 2005. Imagine what more could have been achieved over the last eight years if our federal government had monitored and bolstered this modest improvement in a trade relationship that has steadily thawed since the near, half century old U. S. embargo was established.
But don't just imagine, read. Read, as I have, the committee report produced in February, 2009, by my colleague from my neighboring state of Indiana, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the Ranking Member on the U. S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Lugar's report details the results of a trip by one of his staff members to Cuba, in January of this year, which produced findings remarkably similar to those of a politically diverse group of leading think tanks and experts on U.S.-Cuba policy. In part, the report said, "Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy, and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid South Africa. After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people.'" I believe, strongly, that now is the time for the forward march of justice to take root so that it might bear fruit in the form of economic prosperity and democratic freedom for the people of Cuba.
Yes, my hopes for Cuba include democratic freedoms. While this issue was not a major focus of this trip, it is certainly a concern of mine and other members of our delegation. The fact is that I did meet with many Afro Cubans during our meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro. Last week, when I returned to my district, I spoke to a capacity Latin American audience where I, once again, heard moving stories of their struggles for equality, a struggle that mirrors our nation's civil rights legacy. I am absolutely convinced that the injustices that have been visited upon the citizens of Cuba will be addressed and that they will be addressed quickly.
As my staff and I engage in further dialogue on this subject with the Obama Administration, we are raising the question as to whether a portion of the $1.1 trillion commitment made during the recent G-20 summit could be targeted to Cuba as part of a multi-lateral effort to increase trade with Cuba, directly, or within the region. While Cuba is not the poorest country in the region, an approach like this might allow the U. S. to further strengthen Cuba's trade climate without having a direct, bi-lateral arrangement with Cuba.
It is my fervent belief that by expanding trade, especially Internet-based technologies in Cuba, greater respect for human rights and the plight of Cuban dissidents will be addressed because the voice of the Cuban people will be amplified throughout the world. It's worth noting that in the sound byte-driven media culture we live in I've only been asked once, by a reporter, about the plight of Afro Cubans but my answer got lost on the cutting room floor.
On April 27, I will chair a congressional hearing on the status of America's trade relationship with Cuba. That hearing is just the beginning of a series of steps I intend to take to open up markets for U. S. commerce--especially among small, minority- and women-owned businesses. A trade relationship will also help to shine a spotlight on the plight of those who suffer under a regime that remains repressive in many ways.
I take a back seat to no one when it comes to standing up for human rights--anyone's human rights, and I marvel at how far we've come. I speak from experience including what I now consider a privilege to have once been targeted by an unjust U. S. Justice Department when it was led by the infamous J. Edgar Hoover. Today, our nation is led by a man whose home remains in my congressional district, but who occupies public housing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And we have a man of the caliber of Attorney General Eric Holder, a brilliant legal scholar whose unbiased sense of justice led him to dismiss charges against a former member of Congress.
It wasn't too long ago that people like me were called the dreamers for our far-fetched ideas that change could come to America. Under our new President, we're standing on the threshold of the shadow of global change brought about by those of us, of all races, who dared to dream the dream when it put our lives at risk to do so.
My abiding hope and prayer for the people of Cuba is that they, too, will soon experience their long hoped for dream for democracy, justice and economic prosperity.