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When Did John Boehner Stop Believing Trade Promotes Freedom In Cuba?

David Gomez

#CubaNow Blog Post

Apr 21, 2015

Speaker of the House John Boehner

This weekend, Speaker of the House John Boehner appeared on Fox News’s Sunday Morning Futures to criticize the recent changes in Cuba policy, promising a response from Congress. As he discussed with host Maria Bartiromo:

BARTIROMO: Let me ask you about Cuba. The president intends to take Cuba off of the government's list of nations that sponsor terrorism, eliminating a major obstacle to diplomatic relations. What has Cuba done to prove that this is, in fact, the right course of action?

BOEHNER: They have not done anything. The president keeps giving and giving and giving, and I want to see what the Castro brothers are giving. They've done nothing. I think this is unwise, unhelpful, and, I think, will lead almost nowhere.

BARTIROMO: So, I mean, what are you going to do about it at this point?

BOEHNER: Well, there's an appropriation process that will be started here by the end of the month. And I expect, when it comes to the appropriation bills, there will be riders added that will freeze the president's ability to do a lot of things that he says he's going to do. It'll be a hotly contested issue here in the House and the Senate.

In other words, never mind the polls from Americans showing broad bipartisan support for the new policy, or the poll of Cubans on the Island showing support for embargo being about as popular as day-old liver and onions. There’s a failed status quo to protect.

What’s John Boehner’s stake in all of this? He’s been in office since 1991, but it wasn’t until 2008—coincidentally around the same time a pro-family travel candidate was set to take the White House—that he began touting a harder stance against engagement with Cuba. Since President Obama announced the changes in December, the congressman has been a regular and vocal critic of the changes as “concessions,” as if the rights of Americans to travel and directly support Cubans were some sort of bargaining chip.

But the Speaker felt surprisingly different about engagement not too long ago. In 2000, the House passed major legislation pushed by Rep. George Nethercutt that would allow limited imports of food and medicine to Cuba. One prominent supporter of the expanded trade? Boehner himself. As he told reporters at Nethercutt’s June 27th press conference:

BOEHNER: And I think a lot of you who have watched this process over the last several months realize that we would not be here if George had blinked, if George had not stood up for what he and many of us believe is the right thing to do.

I don't think it's morally defensible to deny the food and medicine that we produce in this country to any human being on the face of the earth. And that's why I've always supported George in this effort.

We do produce more food and fiber than any country in the world. We're the supplier in the world. We have the ability to produce medicines far beyond what any other country has. And no human being should be denied the access to what we can do to help improve their lives.

But I think, and a more important point here is that, while lifting these sanctions will, in the short term, give some relief to our farmers, nobody believes that this is a magic bullet; that it will take time to recover these lost markets.

The Speaker can give any number of reasons for his opposition to the new policy, but the truth of the matter is Cuba’s human rights abuses, safe harbor for fugitives and placement on the state sponsors of terror list were all realities at the time Mr. Boehner was (rightfully) stating that “no human being should be denied the access to what we can do to help improve their lives.”

What changed? When did it again become “morally defensible” to deny Cubans access to American goods—be it food, medicine, technology or equipment to start up their own businesses? Or is it just that politics trump practicality?

We could go on, but nothing really drives the point home like a June 24th, 1997 speech delivered on the floor of Congress, during a heated debate around another Communist country. One congressman at the time really hit the nail on the head of engagement, as well as the fruitlessness of a self-isolating policy that purports to advance human rights. That country was China, and the Congressman was of course, John Boehner:

Mr. BOEHNER. Mr. Speaker, I come to the floor today to support continued normal trade relations with China. We have heard before the term most-favored-nation status, which I do not think really says the true story. Most nations of the world, almost all the nations of the world, have most-favored-nation trading status. The fact is, what we are looking for is the same status for China.

Mr. Speaker, I understand my friends on both sides of the aisle are concerned about the issue of human rights, religious persecution and other abuses that go on in China. I and those who support MFN and normal trade relations with China are as concerned as they are. The issue is, how do we best address those? By delinking ourselves from China, by walking away from East Asia, or by staying engaged with them economically?

I think the best two examples that I have seen are what has happened in Taiwan and what has happened in South Korea. Twenty years ago both of those countries had brutal dictatorships, lack of religious freedom, lack of any kind of democratic freedom. Today both nations have popularly elected Presidents of their countries, real democracy.

Where did the democracy in those two countries come from? It came through expanded trade, expanded economic freedom that was engaged because the United States was engaged economically with those parts of the world.

Second, I would point out to my colleagues that when we talk about normal trade relations, if we want to delink this and we want to say no, who are we really hurting? Those in East Asia, those in China? Or are we really hurting the people in our own country, the people in my district?

Let us talk about agriculture, our country's No. 1 export, some $50 billion a year of exports going all over the world, and China being one of the main customers of our agricultural products. How about Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati? It has a huge presence in my district. Or Parker Hannifan in Eaton. French Oil Co. These are jobs in my district. Let us not hurt our people in order to raise our case about human rights in China.

You can watch the video here.

Now, it’s not news that there are two sets of standards for Cuba and other Communist countries (Marco, Ileana, Bob and Jeb have made it all the rage in certain circles). But we are curious if Speaker Boehner will address when exactly he stopped believing in the United States’ ability to spread “economic freedom” through engagement, or if he bothers to still pick up the paper in his district to read about the new changes’ potential benefits to his constituents. It’s an answer many Americans and Cubans are waiting to hear.