Moran Amendment Passes Senate Committee as Richardson, Cuban Ministry Trade Accusations

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted yesterday by a margin of 20 to 10 (14 Democrats joined 6 Republicans) to ease restrictions on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.  Specifically, the amendment offered by Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, prohibits any funds in the bill to be used to enforce rules prohibiting direct wire transfers from Cuban to U.S. banks in payment for authorized U.S. food and medicine exports.  The agriculture export community has complained that the prohibition on direct payments makes U.S. goods less competitive because of the additional banking fees and because of the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in demurrage charges when the transaction holds up an entire vessel. 

The U.S. International Trade Commission studied agricultural trade with Cuba in 2007 and again in 2009, and determined that U.S. exports could nearly double if restrictions dampening the trade were removed.  As it has in previous fiscal years, the bill contains a provision that would clarify the definition of “cash in advance” (one of the two methods of payment authorized in the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act) as cash received prior to the transfer of title and control of the goods (as it was interpreted prior to a 2005 Treasury rule that restricted the definition so much that cash sales came to a halt). None of these details are up on the Appropriations website yet (I listened to the audiocast).

There weren't the usual fireworks - though surely there would have been if Senators Menendez or Rubio had been there.  Senator Kirk (R-IL) expressed concerns over opening the U.S. banking system up to Cuba.   I’m not clear what the danger is, and Kirk didn’t explain it.  I’m also a bit perplexed by how the U.S. seller is put at risk of not being paid when the seller only releases the goods to the buyer upon confirmation of payment?  Kirk also spoke passionately about Cuba’s human rights record, and reminded the committee – as did Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland – that Alan Gross remains in prison in Cuba for his involvement in a USAID program.  But Senator Moran countered that his amendment wasn’t intended to be a referendum on Cuba but to help U.S. exporters sell products to a nation that will go elsewhere if not to us.  Senators Feinstein (Chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee), Johnson (Chairman of the Banking Committee) and Durbin (Chairman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee) also spoke in favor of the amendment.

It was a refreshing, if small, step forward amidst the he-said-she-said, two-steps-back-and-no-forth by Governor Richardson and his staff and the Cuban Foreign Ministry over who invited whom to talk about what in Havana last week.

Though he vowed to stay in Cuba until he saw Alan Gross, Richardson gave up and went home this week without a visit, and concluded, "that the Cuban Government has made a decision not improve relations with the United States."  The irony of his comment was probably lost on the former Governor and veteran negotiator, as Mr. Gross probably sits in a Cuban prison today because Havana has concluded that the U.S. isn’t serious about turning the page either (or else it would seriously reform, rather than increase funding to, the broken USAID program for which Gross was working). 

The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s Director of North American Affairs, Josefina Vidal, responded to Richardson’s complaints:

"The release of U.S. citizen jailed in Cuba, Alan Gross, was never on the table during the preparations for his [Richardson's] trip, which was made clear to Mr. Richardson as soon as he raised it," reads the statement.

Vidal says the ex-governor's request to see the prisoner had not been on the agenda and "was made impossible by his slanderous statements to the press, in which he described Alan Gross as a 'hostage' of the Cuban Government and his attempt to pressure by affirming publicly that he would not leave Cuba until he had achieved this goal."

A Richardson aide on the trip disputes Vidal's account and insisted that he was invited to discuss Gross. 

The New York Times reports that Richardson told the Cubans they could begin to get off the state sponsors of terrorism list, and that the U.S. would let Rene Gonzalez, a Cuban agent (of of the Cuban Five) set to leave prison next month, return to Cuba rather than serve out his 3-year probation in the United States.  I hope these weren’t offered as a quid pro quo; the terrorism list really should be about terrorism, not trades.  If we’re prepared to take Cuba off the list, then we should simply take Cuba off the list.  And I really doubt that the Obama administration wants to keep a convicted spy walking around the streets of Miami or any other American city.  I’ll be surprised if they don’t ship him back to Cuba on the first plane available. 

Frankly, it shouldn't take a high level visitor for the Cuban government to decide to release Gross (though if we’re going to send one in, we ought to send one in who has a better script and sticks to it).  It really just takes the political will and a public assurance that the next contractor won’t be so lucky. For now, we're left with a stalemate between, as a weary, increasingly depressed Judy Gross told Cafe Fuerte, "two governments that refuse to turn the page on old hostilities."

Update: AP's Paul Haven filed a more detailed story on Team Richardson's version of the negotiation that wasn't.