A Washington-based interest group has recruited a coalition of Texas educators and business and civic leaders to help convince members of Congress to eliminate the country’s embargo against communist Cuba.
Engage Cuba, a nonprofit outfit founded last year, said Thursday that more than three dozen members have joined its Texas council, which will spearhead a regional effort to break the post-Cold War embargo that it says has shackled Americans and Cubans alike.
“Texas has a long history with Cuba, both before 1959 as well as after, and every time we peek under the rug we find more and more leaders in the state that have an interest in this,” said James Williams, Engage Cuba president.
Texas is Engage Cuba’s eighth state member, and the group will employ a combination of media engagement, public forums and private meetings with lawmakers and stakeholders. The roster of Texas council members includes a variety of academics, public officials, business leaders and trade groups, including former University of Texas President Bill Cunningham, former U.S. Ambassador Antonio Garza and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.
The group has drawn members from the University of Texas, Austin Community College, the Texas Association of Business, the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Farm Bureau, among others.
Even under the embargo, Texas has been a top trader with the island nation under provisions of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which allows companies to sell certain goods for profit despite a general trade and travel embargo.
But the trade relationship between Texas and Cuba has dipped recently. The state shipped $291 million in goods in 2014, well below the $348.7 million shipped in 2013.
Specifically, the group is urging federal lawmakers to pass three bills that together would expand travel to Cuba and ease trade policies for the private and agriculture sectors of the economy. Williams said it’s irrational that current policy allows Americans to freely travel to countries such as Iran and North Korea while Cuba remains off limits. Though travel from the United States to Cuba has been expanded since the Obama administration moved to re-establish ties with the Castro regime, most Americans must still receive special permission from the State Department to travel there.
Engage Cuba’s efforts in Texas come as tens of thousands of Cubans have flocked to Texas ports seeking a special immigration status in this country. Under an amended version of 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act agreed upon during the Clinton Administration, called the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy, Cubans who reach the United States can apply for legal entry, while Cubans found at sea are sent back home or to a third country. Most Cubans are allowed to apply for legal permanent residency status, referred to as a green card, a year after arriving.
In 2015, about 28,400 Cubans entered Texas through the Laredo field office of Customs and Border Protection, which extends from Del Rio to Brownsville. That figure represents an 82 percent jump from 2014, when 15,600 Cubans entered through the Laredo field office. Through the first six months of the government’s current fiscal year, an additional 1,580 Cubans have been processed at the El Paso field office of Customs and Border Protection.
The surge has led members of Texas’ congressional delegation, including Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Reps. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; and Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, to call for a repeal of the Cuban immigration policy.
Williams said Thursday that immigration policy wasn’t part of the organization’s “core focus." But he acknowledged that the debate exists and said growing that country’s economy would only help Cubans to prosper there.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to address [immigration] until we deal with the more core cause, and that’s our economic embargo on Cuba,” he said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas, Austin Community College, the Texas Association of Business and the Texas Farm Bureau have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.