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With Relations Restored, Leahy Sets Sights On Removing Cuba's Trade Embargo

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Andrew Harnik
/
AP
Edwardo Clark, a Cuban-American, holds an American flag and a Cuban flag as he celebrates outside the new Cuban embassy in Washington on Monday.

Senator Patrick Leahy says it was "a thrill" to finally see the Cuban flag raised over the country's embassy in Washington, D.C. on Monday morning.  Leahy is one of the people who's been working for years to restore U.S.-Cuba relations.

"I think what was probably the most emotional thing — they played the Cuban national anthem, with a Cuban flag there, and everybody cheered. Then they played the United States' national anthem, and everybody cheered," Leahy said in an interview by phone Monday. "I think it was emotional for the Cubans. It was for me. I've spent so many years trying to bring this about, and I know next month when I go down with Secretary [of State John] Kerry for the raising of the flag at our embassy in Havana, it'll be just as emotional."

Despite the restored diplomatic relations, the United States' trade embargo on Cuba, which has hurt the country's economy, remains. And there are still big questions about human rights in Cuba, and the economic quality of life for everyday Cubans.

Leahy says removing the trade embargo should be the first step in addressing these issues.

"I think we have to remove the trade embargo. If you were to put that to a vote to the American people, it'd be overwhelming: Get rid of it. But Cuba has to take some steps of their own," Leahy said. "[Human rights are] not a reason not to have an embassy. If we required every country to follow the kind of patterns of human rights that we want, we would have to close half our embassies around the world. The fact is, if we want to set an example to another country, we have to have an embassy. We have to have our best men and women at it. We can't say, 'We'll only deal with you when you've taken care of all your problems.'"

"If we required every country to follow the kind of patterns of human rights that we want, we would have to close half our embassies around the world." - Sen. Patrick Leahy

Leahy said he doesn't think there should be any human rights conditions placed on Cuba before the U.S. removes this trade embargo.

"I think the trade embargo — if anything, it hinders improvements," Leahy said. "As long as we have the trade embargo, it gives Cuba an excuse to do whatever they want. I've told both the Castros, in some ways a trade embargo is the best thing they have going for them. They can blame all their mistakes on the United States. We remove the trade embargo, then they're going to have to stand up and do the things they need to do in their own country."

While opening the embassy in Washington is one thing, rebuilding trust between the U.S. and Cuba is quite another, after decades of mistrust between the two countries. To go about fostering that trust, Leahy says the U.S. government should facilitate "as much interchange between the peoples of our countries as possible."

"As long as we have the trade embargo, it gives Cuba an excuse to do whatever they want."

"Trust is not going to be restored overnight," Leahy says. "But student exchanges, exchanges of artists, musicians, writers, scholars, this will help a great deal. Let people who may disagree with Cuba go to Cuba, and vice-versa. I think the more this happens, the better off we are."

To Vermonters who are looking to travel to Cuba, or can buy Cuban goods, Leahy says it all comes back to the embargo.

"The sooner we lift the embargo, the sooner we can do that," Leahy said. "I hope we can start having regular trade. Our agricultural people — I'll tell you, a lot of our medical people hope that we get regular trade. The sooner we do, the better it's going to be for the United States and Cuba."

In the past, the senator has talked about the possibility of having more agricultural exchange programs between Vermont and Cuba, identifying the country's cheese shortage as an opportunity for Vermont producers. That, too, comes back to the embargo.

"If we get the embargo we can probably do it fairly quickly," Leahy said. "Vermonters know how to export things. One of the things the Cubans told me, they import milk and cheese from New Zealand. They'd much rather import it [from] much closer to where they are."

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