CubaNews / April 2005
By Larry Luxner
Bill Reinsch has never been to Cuba, and he’s not particularly eager to go. But he is passionate about fighting for an end to the embargo that prevents his fellow U.S. citizens from visiting the island and interacting with the Cuban people.
As president of the National Foreign Trade Council — which has 300 corporate members representing everything from agriculture to the oil industry — Reinsch opposes the embargo as a matter of principle.
“If the UN or some other multilateral group decides a certain stance is required against a country, we’re not going to stand up and say that’s bad,” he told CubaNews. “But we oppose unilateral sanctions because they don’t achieve our objectives, and because they hurt Americans in the process.
“We don’t see the point. If there were going to be a policy benefit, you could then have a debate over whether it’s worth the cost. But we don’t see any policy benefit, and Cuba is the poster child for ineffective sanctions.”
Reinsch, interviewed at his K Street office in downtown Washington, has spent the last four years at the helm of NFTC, as well as its affiliated organization, USA*Engage.
“The organization is named USA*Engage because we support the idea of engagement as superior to isolation, and Cuba is the best example of this,” he told us. “We’ve had these sanctions in place for nearly 45 years, and guess what — Castro is still there, it’s still a communist state and the people are still impoverished. We’ve accomplished virtually nothing.”
Reinsch, 59, grew up in Illinois and has a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, as well as a master’s from JHU’s Paul H. Nitze Graduate School of Advanced International Studies.
He taught sixth grade and high school in Maryland, then spent the next 20 years on the Hill, serving both Republicans and Demo-crats, including the late Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania.
From 1993 to 2001, Reinsch worked in the Clinton administration, finishing as undersecretary of commerce for export administration — the man directly responsible for overseeing Commerce Department sanctions.
Yet Reinsch sees little irony in this.
“I have never been a fan of sanctions. In fact, our bureau was helpful in making sure sanctions did not get imposed in the case of some countries,” Reinsch said, though he declined to name which ones.
At NFTC, Reinsch doesn’t deal just with Cuba. His organization also opposes unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran, Sudan and Syria, and played a role in getting sanctions lifted against Libya, a major oil producer.
“We’ve opposed all those sanctions on the grounds they don’t work, and that they hurt Americans in the long run because they prevent the creation of relationships and diplomacy,” he said.
Reinsch added that NFTC is different than other groups opposing the embargo on Cuba because it doesn’t focus on that nation alone.
“We have done a lot of work over the years demonstrating the futility of sanctions. We’ve got a good deal of intellectual credibility,” he said. “We’re all on the same team when it comes to Cuba, but our perspective is much broader than that. The other organizations are Cuba-specific. That’s all they do.”
The NFTC, founded in 1914, is a dues-based lobbying organization with a full-time staff of 15 and a budget of around $3.5 million. USA*Engage, which was founded in 1995, is a business coalition of mostly Fortune 500 companies that costs nothing to join.
“Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland are among our members, though most of our corporate members don’t have a huge economic stake in Cuba. They’re not exporting to the Cubans and wouldn’t even if it opened up, but they believe in the principle,” he said, conceding that “a lot of support comes from energy companies which are very interested in our work with Libya and Iran.”
As trade associations, both the NFTC and USA*Engage work with other groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. Wheat Association, the USA Rice Federation and the National Chicken Council.
They also cooperate with anti-embargo organizations like the Center for International Policy, the Latin American Working Group and the Washington Office on Latin America.
“A lot of people are working on the Cuba issue, but not that many of those people represent U.S. businesses,” says Reinsch, who’s also a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “The way our political system works, those kinds of sectors tend to make more progress.”
Unlike many other business associations, NFTC doesn’t have a political action committee, or PAC.
“We don’t make contributions to political campaigns, though some of our member companies do have PACs. We issue a scorecard before each election and rate everybody. We use the power of argument. Sometimes we do research.”
Another thing NFTC doesn’t do is lead fact-finding missions to Cuba. But that’s not a problem for Reinsch, who says “I don’t like to travel very much anyway. I haven’t been overseas on business since I got this job.”
On the other hand, NFTC staffer Jody Frisch has been to Cuba three times.
Frisch spends 100% of her time on the Cuba issue. She organizes frequent press lunches and issues statements on Reinsch’s behalf nearly every time some major Cuba-related legislation is introduced in Congress.
“People who haven’t been to Cuba have misconceptions,” she says. “When you do go, you can’t help but be impressed with all that’s going on. Unlike a lot of third-world places, Cuba has a hard-working, well-educated workforce you don’t see in other countries.”
There’s also an emotional issue, says Reinsch.
“This country’s attachment with Cuba goes back in history. Americans would like to re-start a relationship with Cuba. If you ask our members which ones are the most important to them, they’d say Iran. On the other hand, right now, Cuba and Libya is where the most is happening.”
Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, it was on Feb. 26, 2004, that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control lifted the U.S. travel ban against Libya. That same day, President Bush signed an executive order expanding Washington’s authority to inspect U.S. yachts sailing to Cuba, place guards on vessels and, in some cases, confiscate the boats.
That measure came only a few weeks after OFAC announced it would freeze the assets of Cuba-run travel companies and pursue civil and criminal action against U.S. citizens who do business with those companies.
Yet Reinsch says there’s really no comparison between Cuba under Fidel Castro and Libya under Col. Moammar Qaddafi.
“I don’t see a parallel, because the Libyan government underwent a very dramatic sea change in its thinking, and we responded — over a long period of time – with a calibrated set of responses. But it all began with Libya’s change of heart about its behavior. That has not happened in Cuba.”
Reinsch adds: “The biggest beneficiary of the sanctions is Fidel Castro, because it al-lows him to blame his problems on us. It gives him an excuse to fail. Every once in awhile, Clinton would try to open the door, and what did Castro do? He shot down some planes, threw some people in jail, did something outrageous. Whenever the U.S. liberalizes or takes some positive steps, Castro is the one who forces us to get tough.
“My view is, if you really want Fidel Castro to go away, put a Wal-Mart on every corner. Nothing is going to bring down his regime quicker than exposure to Western economics and people.”
The NFTC has been particularly outspoken on the issue of Section 211, an obscure law dating from 1998 that prohibits U.S. courts from protecting the rights of expropriated Cuban trademarks.
Reinsch says Section 211 — which benefits only one company, rum giant Bacardi — must be repealed because it violates both WTO rules as well as the Inter-American Conven-tion on the Protection of Trademarks and Commercial Property.
“If Section 211 prevails, it will expose 400 other U.S. companies to Cuban retaliation. We think that’s not an idle threat,” he warned. “The potential costs grossly outweighs the potential benefit to a single client.” For this reason, argues Reinsch, “no other companies have supported Bacardi’s position.”
He adds: “We think the embargo ought to be removed, and normal trade relations re-stored. We’re not so naive as to think that’s going to happen tomorrow. Everyone knows what the landscape is. We’re just fighting over the margins. That’s where the votes are.”