By Erik Wasson – The Hill
Two Senate advocates for increased trade with Cuba have backed off their efforts in light of the detention of a U.S. citizen by the Fidel Castro regime.
Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) had been leading a congressional push to “reset” relations with Cuba and increase trade and travel ties, but have halted that advocacy over the Alan Gross case.
Gross, 63, was given a 15-year prison sentence for alleged spying and is reportedly frail. The State Department has called repeatedly for Cuba to release him.
“I have tried to change the trading relationship with Cuba. I am taking a hiatus from that effort. I am no longer willing to do that,” Moran said. “I hope that this will put pressure on Cuba to release him,” he said.
Moran and Durbin had faced opposition from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla), who has thwarted changes to Cuba policy since becoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2011. Despite the lack of action in the House, Moran and Durbin persisted last year in trying to increase agricultural exports to Cuba.
U.S. companies have been permitted to ship food and medicine to Cuba since 2000, but Treasury Department regulations have inhibited trade by making the payments for those goods more complicated. Moran last year inserted an amendment into a draft 2012 Financial Services Appropriations bill that would have allowed Cuban buyers to make direct cash payments to U.S. financial institutions in order to ease agricultural trade. Farm lobbyists supported the language.
The Kansas senator also supported language that would end a restriction that forces buyers to pay for goods before they leave U.S. ports, rather than when receiving the goods. Both provisions were stripped out of the final 2012 omnibus appropriations package that was enacted into law, however.
Moran this week said he is no longer pushing for the trade changes, and aides said neither provision is in the bill that passed out of the Appropriations Committee on Thursday. Durbin, the spending “cardinal” in charge of the Treasury budget, said that he supports Moran’s decision despite being an advocate of using trade to open up closed societies. Durbin said he’s “always voted with [Moran] to expand trade,” but a visit with Gross in prison this spring convinced him that more needs to be done to free him.
In 2010, the House Agriculture Committee under now-ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) attempted to pass a wide-ranging Cuba trade bill. Asked Friday about the Gross case, Peterson said he still wants stronger trade ties. “I’m still for opening trade with Cuba,” he said through a spokesperson.