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The Next Steps on Cuba: Rep. Barbara Lee Pushes for End to Embargo & U.S Travel Restrictions

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As the United States prepares to reopen its embassy in Havana, we speak to Rep. Barbara Lee, who has been rumored to be a frontrunner to become U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Lee has traveled to Cuba over 20 times since the 1970s and has co-sponsored the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act and Free Trade with Cuba Act.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Congressmember Lee, speaking of issues that people have worked hard on, you have worked extremely hard on changing the U.S. relationship with Cuba. The embassies are about to open—U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. It has been talked about that you were interested in being the U.S. ambassador to Cuba, the first one, right now in this new era. Would you accept that position if President Obama nominated you?

REP. BARBARA LEE: No, let me tell you what happened. There was an article in the Matier/Ross column. They wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle some gossip, I guess, a rumor or—I don’t know where they got this from. They said that I had a gentlewoman’s agreement with the president that I would be the first ambassador to Cuba. That is just not the case. That is not true.

I represent some great constituents in the 13th Congressional District. There’s a lot of work to do in Congress. And so I intend to continue working to represent my constituency in Congress and continue to try to help lift this embargo, because, you know, that’s going to take legislative action, as well as lifting the travel ban. The president has come a long way and done everything he can do. I’ve been to Cuba over 20 times, beginning in the '70s. I think ’76, ’77. And I've worked very hard to get us to this point, with other members. But we’ve been doing this for many, many years. And so, now this is a sea change, once again. But I—these rumors, you know how they get started. And, you know, I intend to stay here in Congress and continue to work to represent my constituents, which, I have to—

AMY GOODMAN: You may not have—

REP. BARBARA LEE: —I have to say, is the most progressive and enlightened and diverse constituency in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Lee, you may not have an agreement, but would you like to be the ambassador?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Being an ambassador to Cuba is, I think, a great position, if you’re about ready to retire from Congress. I’m not about ready to retire from Congress. I want to continue to work to lift this embargo and to ensure that the travel ban is lifted. I want to continue representing the greatest district in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the legislation that you think needs to happen with the president’s diplomatic initiatives on Cuba? As you said, he can only go so far. What has to pass in Congress, and what are you pushing for now for normalizing relations with Cuba?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, there are two bills. One would lift the travel ban. Now, you know, you have to have a license. It’s a general license, that really, though, is specific in terms of who can travel to Cuba. But under this administration, they have really made it a little broader and much more flexible in terms of traveling. But you cannot go to Cuba as a tourist. And so, we have legislation that would allow just normal travel relations, like we can travel to China, to Vietnam. Americans have the right to travel to Cuba. And so, we have to have a law, though, that says that, which is really unfortunate. But there’s legislation we’re trying to get passed that would do just that. I’m co-sponsoring that legislation with a Republican member of Congress, Congressman Sanford, to try to get a bipartisan consensus to get this legislation passed.

Secondly, just in terms of normal trade relations, to be able to do business. Currently, under the recent executive orders and prior executive orders, there are some industries that can do business in Cuba. For instance, we can sell medicine and agricultural products to Cuba. But normal trade relations just don’t exist. There’s an embargo. And so, we have to pass legislation that would lift the sanctions and lift the embargo against Cuba, so that we can engage in normal financial and trade transactions. And let me just say, Amy, once that is done, there have been enough businesses, the Chamber of Commerces, all—many economic organizations have shown that we would create economic growth in this country, as well as create jobs in America, if in fact we had normal trade relations with Cuba. And so, there are two bills—there’s a bill that would actually do just that, that Congressman Charlie Rangel is leading on, and I’m a co-sponsor of that.

And so, I hope the people listening to this interview would call their members of Congress and tell them to—tell their members to sign on as co-sponsors, and let’s get these bills passed so that we can have just normal trade and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. It’s to the benefit of the Cuban people and the American people.

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