Last week, several House Democrats quietly killed an attempt to roll back aspects of the Trump administration’s sanctions on Cuba, which have exacerbated the economic fallout of the pandemic and hit the country with severe food and medicine shortages — to protect a front-line Democrat.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., had proposed two Cuba-related amendments to the appropriations bill, aimed at alleviating the Trump administration’s efforts to strangle the country’s economy and returning to Obama-era policy. One of the measures would have prohibited officials from blocking food and medicine exports to Cuba, while the other amendment would have rolled back the Trump administration’s cap on the amount of money people in the U.S. can send their families in Cuba, called remittances.
A coalition of over 100 groups, including progressive organizations like Just Foreign Policy, Demand Progress, and CODEPINK, supported the amendments and called on Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, chair of the House Rules Committee, to allow the measures to come to the floor.
McGovern has been a vocal opponent of America’s policy on Cuba since he was in college. Just last year, McGovern railed against the economic blockade, calling it a failure. “Not only does it hurt the Cuban people, it hurts America too,” McGovern said. “There are lifesaving medicines that have been developed and produced in Cuba that are not available here because of our embargo.” McGovern also highlighted the amendments in a speech on the House floor.
According to McGovern spokesperson Matt Bonaccorsi, though the congressman would have approved the remittances measure, the parliamentarian had some issues with the amendment to stop enforcing restrictions on food and medicine exports. And just a few days later, Rush withdrew the amendments.
But advocates in a coalition of groups supporting the amendments say that some House Democrats in the Florida and New Jersey delegations, including Rep. Donna Shalala, along with aligned nonprofit groups, pressured lawmakers to withdraw the amendments out of concerns that they would affect Florida Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell — one of 42 members the party considers in need of electoral protection. Mucarsel-Powell, who represents a large Cuban-American population, anticipates her race will be “one of the toughest” in the country. One House Democrat confirmed that there was pressure from others in the caucus to avoid a vote on these amendments.
In a statement about the decision, the Illinois Democrat cited pressure from his colleagues, albeit in a roundabout way. “Normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba has, and will continue to be, a top priority so long as I am a Member of Congress,” Rush said. “However, upon further consideration and conversations with my Congressional colleagues, I have determined that these amendments are unlikely to be adopted by the Senate or signed into law by the President.” Rush’s office declined to expand on this statement.
For years, Democratic leadership has insisted that legislation be restrained to consider the reelection of Democrats from swing districts, dubbed the “majority makers.” In Florida, a swing state, the Cuban-American electorate skews conservative, and the party goes out of its way to appeal to this influential voting bloc. “Every candidate has a right and obligation to run a campaign tailored to their district,” Erik Sperling, Just Foreign Policy executive director, said in a statement.
“But it’s a problem that U.S.-Cuba policy for the entire Democratic Caucus is determined by the campaign strategy for races representing less than 0.005% of the U.S. population. With the economic downturn from the pandemic causing food shortages, this systemic flaw could be lethal for Cubans.”
It’s true the amendments were unlikely to be signed into law, but House Democrats pass plenty of legislation to send a strong message. And multiple sources involved in the discussions say that Mucarsel-Powell’s race was top of mind.
In 2018, she defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo by 2 points. A recent poll commissioned by a Republican Super PAC found that Mucarsel-Powell’s Republican opponent, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez, is leading by 5 percentage points.
When the Trump administration announced its cap on remittances, Mucarsel-Powell also gave a definitive statement opposing the policy. “There are hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who live in South Florida and in my district, who would like to continue supporting their families back in Cuba,” she said at the time. “I strongly believe we should not do so by punishing the Cuban people.”
Indeed, a February 2019 study found that 56 percent of Cuban families rely on remittances from family abroad. Shalala slammed the administration’s Cuba policy as recently as June 4, saying that cutting off remittances during a pandemic would “not only be cruel to the Cubans on the island but their families — many of my constituents — in the U.S.”
Though Cuba has one of the lowest rates of coronavirus cases (as a result of its universal health care system and rigorous response to the disease), restrictions on banks and shipping companies prevent Cuba from receiving desperately needed goods. In the earlier stages of the shutdown, officials cited a cap on the sale of medical equipment that restricted the “percentage of U.S. content allowed in foreign sales to Cuba to less than 10 percent.” The pandemic’s economic consequences, which also shuttered Cuba’s tourism industry, have worsened the cruelty of the 60-year U.S. blockade.
Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a human rights attorney and former president of the National Lawyers Guild, helped organize support for the amendments with a coalition of progressive foreign policy groups, including the push to get McGovern to allow the amendments on the floor. She said that advocates figured the amendments “would be a sure thing” — considering the congressman’s “longstanding support” for the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S.
“We presume that he’s going to support this to find out that what is actually weighing in the background of this is concerns by Democratic leadership about how this will play out in some of their members’ races — or really one member’s district in South Florida where she’s in a vulnerable race,” she said. “So it isn’t that there are ideological or philosophical differences with the amendments.”
Bannan said that Democrats have promised that stronger amendments and bills will come after the elections in November. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and a country that is under an illegal blockade that is only getting further squeezed is the most cruel and inhumane part of it,” she said. “And that they’re going to have to be that way for months and months more because of concern with one person’s race is more than unfortunate — it’s cruel.”