The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans who joined Obama in Cuba return hoping to change GOP minds about the embargo

President Obama waves after delivering a speech at the Gran Teatro de la Habana in Havana on March 22. Republicans who traveled with him say the trip could help push the GOP to lift the embargo. (AFP PHOTO/ Nicholas KAMMNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

The Republicans who accompanied President Obama to Havana last week returned as cheerleaders for normalizing relations with Cuba, but with no unified strategy for how to convince their GOP colleagues to join the cause.

The Republicans who made the trip all support lifting the trade embargo and ending the travel ban – a pair of initiatives that have gained quiet support in Congress – but they have diverging ideas of how far and how fast to push fellow Republicans to drop their objections to improving relations with the island country.

“My takeaway was that this is not going to be as easy or as quickly done as I think President Obama would like,” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wisc.), who was part of the delegation. “[Cuban President] Raul Castro is still pretty dug-in on certain things that I know will not get past a Republican-held Congress.”

He said lifting the embargo might have to wait until after both Castro and Obama leave office.

“A new generation of Cuban leadership and a new generation of American leadership offers an opportunity,” said Ribble, who had never been to Cuba before last week’s trip.

The Republican Party is still sharply divided over lifting the decades-old trade embargo against Cuba. Members are pulled between the businesses and farmers that view Cuba as a new market and the politicians who support the argument espoused by many Cuban-Americans that offering any economic breaks to Havana before serious human rights reforms are adopted is a gift to the Castros.

Even as more American companies urge Congress to end the embargo, political support for it remains strong. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) — who years ago, favored lifting the embargo before supporting it — said last week that Obama’s trip to Cuba “legitimizes a tyrannical dictatorship.”

The Republicans who joined Obama in Cuba are unified in their effort to change the minds of leaders like Ryan, but they differ on the best way to build support for normalizing relations with Havana.

Ribble favors a piecemeal approach, where Congress would tackle a restoration of agricultural ties before wrestling with the whole embargo.

Doing things in a “narrower and smarter” way would help Republicans get over their “hang-ups,” Ribble argued, which include a desire to see more religious freedoms for Cuban citizens and distrust of Castro’s demands, which include his insistence that Miami-based Radio Marti be taken off the air, the naval base at Guantanamo Bay be returned to Cuba and the United States pay reparations for the economic damage done by the embargo.

“Knowing my colleagues that oppose normalizing relations with Cuba, these are the kinds of things they usually cite,” Ribble said.

But the piecemeal approach is being greeted with skepticism by another House Republican who made the trip to Cuba and is pushing to end the embargo.

“What are we, going to try and live with this false belief that some part of the embargo has actually been valid?” said Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) who argues that Congress has to tackle the whole embargo at once, because any move toward picking it apart is effectively an admission that the whole thing “doesn’t make sense.”

“The embargo has been the single greatest thing that contributed to [Fidel Castro’s] ability to consolidate and hold power for several decades,” Emmer said. “If it goes away, there are no more excuses, the government has to be responsible to its people.”

Emmer also said that it’s important to get rid of the embargo before Raul Castro leaves office, his current term is up in 2018, to secure a key role for the United States in Cuba’s future.

“Once [Castro] steps down, it’s too late, I would argue,” Emmer said. “If the United States is not there, you risk having someone else fill that vacuum.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has pushed to improve relations with Cuba since coming ti Congress in 2001, also argued that opponents of the embargo have to make as much progress as they can as quickly as they can.

But he is a little less ambitious than Emmer about the timeline, predicting that Congress will tackle the “travel ban this year, embargo next,” he said. “That would be my guess.”

Flake is insistent that lawmakers at least try this year to lift the travel ban, which has been rendered all but legally moot by Obama’s executive order allowing anyone to travel to Cuba so long as they are going for educational purposes.

“I obviously want to lift the entire embargo,” Flake said. “But the travel ban, I thought even before recent activities, that we certainly have the votes for it in the Senate.”

He also argues that for Republicans to resist lifting the embargo skirts awfully close to hypocrisy – which is why the latest trip should make it easier to change minds in Congress.

“What we’ve all been talking about is economic activity. This trip heightened it, it focused more attention, for Republicans to see the types of industry down in Cuba,” Flake said. “That’s the gospel we preach: economic change will hopefully lead to political change, or at least nudge countries in that direction. That’s been Republican orthodoxy.”

Flake said he wants to sit down with colleagues in the House to see what can be done and determine whether it’s best to press ahead with legislation to lift the entire embargo, or aim slightly lower.

Lawmakers expect Cuba-related issues will come up this year in the context of the appropriations process.

Embargo supporters, including some Cuban-American members of Congress,  sought to discredit the president’s trip by arguing he was playing into Castro’s hands and for attending a baseball game while the Brussels attacks were taking place.

But the Republicans who traveled with Obama said that the political fallout from this criticism may be overblown. Emmer, Ribble and Flake all said they had experienced barely any pushback from their constituents for joining Obama in Havana, and that despite earlier concerns, they approved of how Obama handled his time in Cuba.

“This was an important trip both in terms of optics and substance,” Flake said. “For the most part, the chorus of people saying [Obama] should come back after the Brussels bombing are the same people saying he shouldn’t have gone in the first place.”