Nonprofit says Pro-Cuba embargo money flows to congressional campaigns, influences votes

By Laura Wides-munoz, AP
Monday, November 16, 2009

Pro-Cuba embargo money flows to US lawmakers

MIAMI — Supporters of tough U.S. sanctions against the Cuban government have given more than $10 million to congressional campaigns over the last seven years, according to a study released late Sunday night by a group supporting campaign finance reform.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Public Campaign said the study shows how large sums of money from a small group can influence lawmakers. Public Campaign cites a number of times in which lawmakers changed their position on Cuba-related issues within months of receiving funds from a political action committee that supports the U.S. embargo of the communist island.

Meanwhile, recent surveys suggest more Cubans are split on travel restrictions and other sanctions than in the past.

Those who back U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC say they are being unfairly targeted for their passionate views toward their homeland. They note many other groups channel money to politicians who support their views.

“Perhaps it’s the age-old story of money and politics, but 18 members switched their votes on the subject, some in very close proximity to when they got donations,” said Public Campaign’s David Donnelly.

“When an issue is not in the front view like health care, our campaign finance system sets up a situation in which the members are more interested in the money than deciding a rational, reasoned approach to politics, regardless of what the outcome,” he added.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Washington-based director to the PAC, says the group is simply exercising its constitutional right to political participation.

“For some of these folks, it’s OK for unions to support pro-labor members. It’s OK for trial lawyers to help elect pro-litigators. It’s OK for the Jewish community to help elect pro-Israel,” Claver-Carone said, adding, “But somehow it’s not OK for the Cuban community to help elect members and candidates that help and support conditioning business and tourism with the Castro regime with human rights and democratic reforms.”

Like many other interest groups, those who support the U.S. embargo of Cuba have long donated heavily to whichever party is in power and spread the funds among legislators across the country.

The report acknowledges the donations are relatively small compared to those given to influence health care or banking regulations. And those who received the biggest donations are members of the Cuban exile community or represent it.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a staunchly pro-embargo Cuban-American, called the report a “low blow” and a “lot of baloney” from those who oppose the sanctions.

But at least 18 lawmakers with few Cuban constituents appeared to change their votes around the time they began receiving donations. Among them, U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-NC, consistently voted to ease relations with Cuba until 2004. Since then, he’s received $14,500 from the PAC and its network, according to the report. U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-CA, who switched his votes the same year, has taken nearly $10,000 from the PAC and its supporters since then. U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., switched his votes in 2005 and has since received $3,000 from the PAC.

McIntyre said he changed his mind after hearing Diaz-Balart’s personal story.

“It had nothing to do with the money,” he said. “I had a philosophical change of heart. We can’t be supporting democracy and human rights overseas if we’re not supporting it 90 miles from our shore.”

Shimkus spokesman Steve Tomaszewski said his boss also had a change of heart, adding he would vote differently today on trade with China. A spokesman for Cardoza would not immediately provide a comment Thursday.

A list of the PAC’s contributors reads like a “Who’s Who” of Cuban-American business and other leaders. Diaz-Balart said the number of individual contributions and those to PACs demonstrate the community’s continued unity.

But U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass, who has long opposed the embargo, believes there is an increasing disconnect between those who support the PAC and the majority of the Cuban-American community.

Polls show supporters of the U.S. embargo and travel ban may no longer be in the majority. Many Cuban-Americans back some sanctions against the island until political prisoners there are released, free elections are held and independent media is allowed to operate. Yet younger members and newer arrivals tend to support easing travel restrictions and encouraging educational and other exchanges.

The study was released as travel ban opponents prepare for congressional hearings Thursday on the issue.

President Barack Obama has walked a fine line on the issue. He relaxed restrictions on family travel and allowed U.S. scientists to visit the island, but he says he will not call for lifting general sanctions until the Cuban government demonstrates willingness to improve human rights and political freedoms.

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