THE BLOG
01/29/2016 12:06 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2017

Lifting the U.S. Trade Embargo on Cuba: Using Diplomacy to Sway Congress

Diplomacy works! The emphasis that President Obama, Secretary Kerry and National Security Advisor Rice have placed on diplomacy did not start recently: Obama has made it a hallmark of his Presidency across the board. The historic progress with Cuba -- highlighted on December 17, 2014 and ongoing since then -- has been shown to be entirely the product of diplomatic engagement.

The U.S. work to normalize relations with Cuba is still just beginning. The U.S. certainly cannot rest on its laurels, and the President indicated as much in his recent State of the Union address when he repeated his call to Congress to support the new policy with Cuba. In the ongoing normalization process, Cuba still has major reform steps to take. For the U.S., the agenda is fairly simple: lift the five decade-old trade embargo on the Island and allow Americans the freedom to travel. Simple, and yet, exceedingly difficult. In order to lift the full embargo, congressional action will be needed, but Obama lacks majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. "No way," say the skeptics.

However, difficult is not the same as impossible. Diplomacy, which has proven so critical in other regions, must be harnessed in Cuba, too. Moreover, there is precedent. In early 1977, the nay-sayers outright rejected then-President Jimmy Carter's stated aim to return the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. The skeptics dismissed the odds of pulling together majorities to pass the Torrijos-Carter Treaties on the Hill. And yet nine months after Carter entered the White House, the treaty handing over the Canal passed in the Senate, and enabling legislation cleared the House the following year. One of Carter's secret weapons in proving the skeptics wrong was broad-based and collaborative diplomacy.

In 1977, every country in the Western Hemisphere was solidly on record favoring the return of the Canal from the U.S. to Panama. Similarly, in the case of U.S.-Cuba relations, that same consensus exists across the Western Hemisphere in support of the breakthrough on December 17, 2014. Moreover, over the years, those same Latin American governments -- leftist and right-wing, pro- or anti-U.S. -- have sided in the annual United Nations vote in favor of ending the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. It is time for the U.S. government to harness that Latin American unanimity to help its efforts to bring both Houses of Congress around. If the Panama model is followed, there are good chances the U.S. legislators will listen.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 2013 (the most recent year for which there were complete statistics), U.S. majority-owned affiliates of U.S. multinational enterprises employed 2.46 million people, and sales were $783 billion. It is a two-way street: U.S.-based majority-owned affiliates of Latin American companies had sales of $286.5 billion and employed more than 300 thousand people, the majority of whom are Americans. In this election year, that means up to 309,000 potential voters.

In 1977, the U.S. government worked with U.S. corporate leadership to ensure that every member of Congress was aware of Latin American attitudes towards the Panama Canal issue, including the upside of improved ties if the U.S. did the right thing on the Canal, and the downside of maintaining the status quo. In the 1970s, Congress successfully aligned with the rest of the Western Hemisphere. A similar effort is needed at present to remind U.S. legislators of where the Latin American countries -- the source of investment opportunities and valuable jobs in their own districts -- stand on the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Latin American leaders are overwhelmingly in favor of lifting the U.S. trade and travel bans.

The effort should not come solely from interested U.S. parties in Washington. The Latin American capitals should instruct their embassies in Washington to visit the Hill to make their views known, especially to members who have been hearing only one side of the issue for decades. In 1977, such activism was very new to most Latin American embassies in Washington, and yet it had a major impact in the "education" of the U.S. Congress on the Panama Canal issue. That activism, which proved effective, should be harnessed in Washington and throughout the Western Hemisphere on issues where there is broad-based consensus. Lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba is the next chance for proving that diplomacy works. We should not squander this opportunity.

Michael Parmly is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. Parmly served in Cuba as Chief of the Interests Section and is an advisor of the Policy Council of Engage Cuba, a bipartisan organization dedicated to mobilizing American businesses and non-profit groups to support the ongoing U.S.‐Cuba normalization process.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series that is revisiting the topic of U.S.-Cuba relations, one year after the thaw in the long-standing tension between two Western Hemisphere foes. The series, produced in partnership with Engage Cuba -- a bipartisan organization working to end the Cuban embargo and normalize U.S.-Cuba relations -- will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.