News Local/State

Durbin, Bustos Push For Trade With Cuba After Delegation Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, attends a State Dinner hosted by Cuban President Raul Castro, right, at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Havana, Cuba.

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, attends a State Dinner hosted by Cuban President Raul Castro, right, at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

US Senator Dick Durbin says he saw a ‘spirit of cooperation’ as part of the delegation joining President Obama on a trip to Cuba this week.  Illinois' Democratic U.S. Senator says such a mood was lacking in his other recent visits there.  He and 17th District Congresswoman Cheri Bustos are among those calling for an end to the U.S. trade embargo with the country.

Such a move would require congressional action by both chambers.

Durbin says a handful of Republicans and Democrats are resistant to lifting that embargo.  He says it will also require Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow a couple days’ debate on the issue.

“I think if we have a straight-up vote on this embargo, we could bring it down," he said.  "We’ve had a strong bipartisan group on this trip, and strong bipartisan support for opening up trade with Cuba.  There is no excuse.  Those who want to cling some old foreign policy for personal reasons have had their day.  Now it’s time for new policy.”

McConnell this week called Obama’s trip to Cuba ‘embarrassing’, and reportedly still favors the embargo that’s been in place since the Kennedy administration.

Durbin says Illinois’ agriculture sector stands to benefit by exporting products in high demand, like corn, soybeans and meat. He also says opening trade with the island nation presents a unique opportunity to improve access to organic foods in the U.S. market.

“Turns out, Cuba, because it has not been using chemicals for years, is in a position to move immediately toward growing organic food," Durbin said.  "And there’s plenty of market opportunity in the United States.”

Bustos says American businesses stand to benefit from an expanded global marketplace, less than a hundred miles off America’s shores.

"There was a businessman who made a statement when we were meeting with some American business leaders down there, and he said 'if we don't lift the embargo, we will lose out every single day,'" she said. "And I would see it the exact same way."

Bustos represents Peoria and Moline, home to Caterpillar and John Deere. She says both companies are deeply interested in marketing their products to Cuba.

Durbin says Canada is among the many countries that are trading with Cuba while the U.S. is ‘standing on the sidelines.’  He also saw Americans on the trip, noting some are anxious to visit the country.

The delegation's visit to Cuba also brings questions about the future of the naval base in Guantanamo Bay back to the forefront.  Obama has been pushing to close the facility.

In an opinion piece, Illinois Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk argues it should stay open. He says it's the "best way to protect Americans" from terrorist threats posed by detainees.

Kirk raises concerns about the cost, legal issues, and security problems, posed by transferring prisoners to the United States.

Durbin tried to debunk those fears.

"Currently, in our state of Illinois - Marion federal prison, we have convicted terrorists who are being held safely, in that prison," he said.  "And no one in southern Illinois has even raised the issue with me."

Durbin is a key backer of Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, who is campaigning against Kirk for his Senate seat.