The head of a US nonprofit advocating for closer ties with Havana is among the 30 people on President-elect Joe Biden’s agency review team for the State Department, hinting at a coming surge in lobbying around Cuba policy.
Emily Mendrala is the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), a group whose stated mission is to “change hearts and minds about U.S. relations with Cuba.” She previously served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and worked on Cuba and Central America policy at the State Department and as a Latin America adviser to John Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Since our founding in 2006, CDA has maintained the belief that forging constructive U.S.-Cuba relations will have a beneficial and lasting impact on both U.S. and Cuban societies,” the group says on its website. “Engagement sends an important signal to Latin America, conveying that the United States is committed to positive relations with the region and its people.”
Biden slammed President Donald Trump‘s re-imposition of trade and travel restrictions during the campaign and is expected to return to the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with the island. Havana has taken notice, with President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeting over the weekend that US voters had opted for a “new direction.”
“We believe in the possibility of constructive bilateral relations respecting one another’s differences,” Diaz-Canel said Sunday.
The change in policy outlook has Cuba watchers anticipating an increase in influence operations after a lull over the past four years.
“We expect an increase in lobbying and advocacy campaigns on U.S. policy towards Cuba, from both directions, given the likelihood that a Biden Administration would likely wish to build upon the Obama Administration’s achievements in restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, starting with repairing the damage created by reversals by President Trump,” said Lisa Haugaard, the co-director of the Latin America Working Group, an advocacy group that campaigned on restoring diplomatic ties in 2015. “We certainly hope that sensible steps to reestablish full diplomatic relations and restore rights of U.S. citizens to travel freely to the island will be among the administration’s early actions.”
Mendrala referred questions to the Biden transition team, which did not respond to a request for comment about Biden’s Cuba policy.
While the Center for Democracy in the Americas itself has never registered to lobby, its deputy director, Maria Jose Espinosa Carrillo, also serves as interim director of Engage Cuba, a national coalition of businesses and organizations that lobbied heavily to end the 60-year-old embargo on Cuba during the Obama administration.
Lobbying records show the group paid Republican lobbying firm Fierce Government Relations $470,000 in 2015 and 2016 to lobby on opening up travel to Cuba, but only $130,000 under Trump before the contract was terminated in September 2018 amid a lack of progress. Engage Cuba also hired law firm Baker & Hostetler in June 2017 to lobby on the trade embargo and paid the firm $60,000 before the contract ended at the end of September 2017.
The group did not respond to a request for comment about its future lobbying goals.
On the opposing side of the issue, Mauricio Claver-Carone‘s Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp. has spent $267,000 on in-house lobbying since its registration in 2005, most of it under Obama. Its lobbying activities ended soon after the 2016 election, with Claver-Carone joining the Trump transition team and later taking over as director for Latin American affairs on the White House National Security Council (he became director of the Inter-American Development Bank in October).
That leaves the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, a nonprofit that promotes a non-violent transition to a democratic Cuba and works to empower independent civil society organizations. The group hired the Cormac Group in December 2018 to lobby on human rights in Cuba and has paid the firm $70,000 since then. Cormac subcontractor Thomas Kahn has been paid $40,000 since joining the effort in June 2019.
Much of their lobbying has focused on support for the opposition in Venezuela, a key Cuba ally, rather than Cuba policy per se. Earlier today however Cormac lobbyist Jose Cardenas retweeted a Wall Street Journal opinion piece calling on the next president to pursue human rights sanctions against Cuban officials under the Global Magnitsky Act.
“The U.S. needs a bold new approach,” the piece advocates, “using corruption-focused sanctions against Cuban officials and their accomplices.”