N.C. lawmakers show predictable partisan split on Obama’s Cuba policy

When the Republican-led Congress returns in January, lawmakers could take actions to block President Barack Obama’s surprise plan announced this week to normalize relations with Cuba.

North Carolina Republican Sen.-elect Thom Tillis said he was strongly opposed to the plan. The state’s senior Republican senator, Richard Burr, said he would look at it carefully, but was “wary.”

Congress could refuse to end the economic embargo of Cuba and block funding to build an embassy in Havana. The Senate could refuse to confirm an ambassador.

“President Obama’s announcement regarding normalizing relations with Cuba is terribly misguided,” Tillis said in an email. “The U.S. should only consider normalization once the Cuban government demonstrates a commitment to democratic reforms and human rights.”

Burr, in a statement, said he would “listen closely” as Senate Foreign Affairs Committee members “contemplate any legislative changes that may need to be made in response to the president’s announcement.” He added, “I continue to worry about human rights violations taking place in Cuba, including Cuba’s treatment of political prisoners, and am wary of the implications of the president's action.”

Burr also said he was glad that the Cuban government released Alan Gross, who was arrested in Cuba in December 2009 for smuggling in satellite communications gear for a program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development. As part of the deal, which Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, helped to facilitate, Cuba also released an American spy who had spent 20 years in a Cuban jail.

Burr said the spy “was incredibly helpful to our nation.”

In exchange, the U.S. released three Cuban spies.

Support for the half-century chill in relations between the U.S. and Cuba has long been a tenet of Republican Party politics. Cuban-Americans have been a influential force in Florida elections, particularly during presidential years when the state plays a pivotal role. But recent polls among Cuban-Americans show that nearly 70 percent support restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba; among younger Cuban-Americans, it’s 90 percent.

Among Obama’s arguments for shelving a policy conceived during the Cold War was that it has not accomplished the original intent _ to change Cuba’s Marxist government. Supporters have also noted that the U.S. has diplomatic and trade relations with a number of regimes and former adversaries whose policies, such as on human rights and democratic freedoms, it opposes, including China and Russia.

North Carolina U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Republican from Raleigh, opposed the president’s plan.

“Instead of rewarding an oppressive regime who has failed in the past to deliver increased freedoms and real economic reform, President Obama should instead advocate for the freedom of the Cuban people before any concessions are made,”Holding said.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican from Dunn, cheered the release of Gross but added: “I remain greatly concerned that President Obama chose to release three convicted Cuban spies, and I find this release to be a flagrant disregard on the principle of justice. While seeking to establish a fresh relationship with Cuba is admirable, I would strongly encourage the Castro brothers to instead focus on promoting individual liberty and human rights.”

Republican Rep.-elect David Rouzer, who will take office representing the state’s 7th District, called the plan “tragic.” He said Cuba was a state sponsor of terrorism and that normalization of relations would sustain the Castro regime while “not really helping the Cuban people.”

“Yes, it would become one more market for agricultural products,” Rouzer said. “But what is the exchange for that? The exchange is you’re helping sustain a brutal regime at the cost of citizens who are suffering in that country.”

U.S. House Democrats from North Carolina agreed with Obama, who said on Wednesday that the policies of more than five decades hadn’t been working.

“I commend President Obama for the historic achievement of normalizing relations with Cuba, and I encourage Congress to act quickly to remove the travel ban and economic embargo,” said Democratic Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill. “For too long, we have allowed mistrust and political differences to stand in the way of our shared interests.”

“President Obama’s action will immediately improve the quality of life of the Cuban people, but we must seek every opportunity to support their aspirations for freedom and democracy,” Price added. “I strongly believe that increased cooperation and understanding will provide us with new avenues for bringing about positive change.”

“I agree that now is the time for a different approach,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson. “I am encouraged by these decisions and I’m hopeful for a better future for the Cuban people.”

Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Republican from Charlotte who is chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, argued in a statement that Obama’s foreign policy was one of appeasing enemies.

“How exactly will rolling over on Cuba advance the cause of freedom and human rights?” Pittenger said. “In his zeal to appease our adversaries, President Obama is now providing Cuba with credibility to export their Marxist views throughout the world, while enabling access to economic trade that will strengthen the brutal and oppressive Castro regime, even as Cuba consistently works to undermine American policies around the world.”