A group of lawmakers who want more trade with Cuba are urging President Donald Trump to suspend an Obama-era restriction on what types of relief and reconstruction supplies can be sent to the island from the United States after Hurricane Irma made landfall on Cuba's north coast as a Category Five storm.
On Thursday, 65 lawmakers, including 60 Democrats and five Republicans, signed a letter to Trump asking him to let U.S. businesses send construction supplies to Cuba without approval from the Treasury and Commerce Departments.
"Historical grievances should be put aside during a humanitarian crisis like this, the people of Cuba need urgent support to rebuild," the letter said. "Fortunately, there is a simple change you can make that would provide necessary support to the Cuban people while at the same time helping U.S. businesses: remove restrictions on the ability of U.S. companies to export needed relief and reconstruction supplies to the Cuban government and its people."
The plan only applies to private U.S. companies that want to provide construction materials and other forms of relief to the Cuban government and citizens. It does not ask the U.S. government to provide taxpayer funds for Cuba's recovery from Irma.
Current regulations allow pre-approved sales of construction materials to private entities in Cuba serving privately-owned buildings. Public structures in Cuba, including schools and hospitals, are not eligible for U.S. materials to rebuild after a storm.
"At the end of the day America is a very big economy, we’re capable of selling building supply products to Cuba and working on aid packages in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico at the same time," said James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties. "It would be different if we were saying pull money out of one pocket and put it into another."
The Cuban government hasn't reached out to U.S. officials asking for relief after Hurricane Irma. Southcom Commander Adm. Kurt Tidd said in a briefing last week at that Cuban officials did not ask U.S. military personnel in Guantanamo Bay for help after the storm.
“The Cubans do not ask for assistance there typically," Kenneth Merten, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, said last week. "I’m hard pressed to remember if the Cubans have ever asked us for assistance after a hurricane or some kind of natural disaster."
The letter was led by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., one of the more liberal members of Congress. But conservatives who want to end the embargo like Reps. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Ted Poe of Texas also signed the letter.
"At this difficult time for the Cuban people, denying them the ability to purchase high-quality, American-made construction, medical and other crucial supplies is cruel and counterproductive," the letter said. "This change would not be controversial."
Hurricane Irma killed at least 10 people in Cuba and caused billions in damage along the island's north coast.
Update 7:41pm Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the longest-serving Cuban-American in Congress, sharply criticized the letter in a statement to the Miami Herald.
"In the aftermath of previous hurricanes that have ripped through Cuba, the Castro regime has responded to the suffering of the people in a feckless and callous manner, as demonstrated by its refusal to accept assistance that comes from the U.S.," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Because they are blinded by ideology, some Members foolishly believe that US regulations are responsible for the destruction of Cuba's infrastructure and are hampering the island's recovery. The regime cares little about the citizens before, during and after hurricanes but it does care deeply about spreading its lies about our warm and generous nation."
Update 11:20pm Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who helped draft Trump's tougher Cuba policy earlier this year, is also against the proposal.
"When the United States generously offered humanitarian aid in the wake of hurricanes Ike and Gustav, the Castro regime flatly rejected that offer," Diaz-Balart said in a statement. "Instead, it cynically attempted to leverage the devastation to demand financing that would bolster its coffers. I wholeheartedly support humanitarian and pro-democracy assistance to the Cuban people. But as the regime has demonstrated for more than half a century, business deals with the regime only benefit the regime."