Money Talks: Report Links Donations, Cuba Embargo Support

Supporters of the U.S. embargo against Cuba have contributed nearly $11 million to members of Congress since 2004 in a largely successful effort to block efforts to weaken sanctions against the island, a new report shows.

In several cases, the report by Public Campaign says, members of Congress who had supported easing sanctions against Cuba changed their position — and got donations from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee and its donors.

All told, the political action committee and its contributors have given $10.77 million nationwide to nearly 400 candidates and members of Congress, the report says.

The contributions include more than $850,000 to 53 Democrats in the House of Representatives who sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this month opposing any change to U.S.-Cuba policy. The average signer, the report says, received $16,344.

The top five recipients of the embargo supporters’ cash: Miami’s three Cuban-American Republican members of Congress, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, whose parents fled Cuba before his birth.

The report comes as defenders of the embargo fend off efforts to repeal a decades-old ban against U.S. travel to Cuba. Proponents of greater engagement with Cuba contend that they have the votes, and a hearing on the issue is scheduled for Thursday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Critics of U.S.-Cuba policy long have suggested a link between campaign contributions and policy. Public Campaign — which advocates for public financing of political campaigns — says the contributions raise questions about the role that money plays in lawmakers’ decision-making.

“The pressure they get to raise money plays heavier in their decisions than it ought to,” said David Donnelly, the national campaigns director for Public Campaign. “We think this is a damning pattern. We think these are good people caught in a bad system. If members of Congress have to spend too much time raising money, they have to listen to people who give money.”

The director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, Mauricio Claver-Carone, defended the contributions as support for lawmakers who side with Cuban-Americans who think that easing sanctions against Cuba will only benefit the Castro regime.

“I will not apologize for the Cuban-American community practicing its constitutional, democratic right to support candidates who believe in freedom and democracy for the Cuban people over business and tourism interests,” Claver-Carone said. “Unions help elect pro-union candidates. The Chamber of Commerce helps elect pro-business candidates. AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) helps elect pro-Israel members. Who are we supposed to help? Pro-Castro members?”

Public Campaign looked at the Cuba committee because of a seeming disconnect between congressional votes and public opinion polls that suggest most Americans support lifting a ban on travel to Cuba, Donnelly said.

“On this issue there appears to be a clear distinction between what the American public appears to want and what some in Congress are advocating,” Donnelly said, pointing to a World Public Opinion survey in April that found 70 percent of Americans support travel to Cuba.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who backs greater engagement with Cuba, said the report wasn’t a surprise.

“I don’t know how else you can explain how our current policy has survived for so long without yielding any meaningful results; it’s all politics,” Flake said.

The report says that at least 18 House members — including several from agriculture-rich districts — received campaign contributions from the PAC or its donors and switched their positions on Cuba, from voting in favor of easing travel restrictions to voting against any efforts to soften the embargo.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., said his changed views came from humanitarian interests and concerns about oppression in Cuba. He said he spoke with Florida Republican Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart about their family’s experience in Cuba under Fidel Castro.

“I thought, ‘This is not right, and it’s not humanitarian, and it doesn’t promote democracy and I’m not going to support someone who is repressive and evil,’ ” McIntyre said. “Yes, I changed my vote. That’s the reason I changed: the horrors they suffered.”

“They’re really savvy people,” Lars Schoultz, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the author of “That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution,” said of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. “They know one vote is one vote. They scratch around and see who might be open to their way of thinking.”

Claver-Carone, who started the PAC in 2003, said agricultural and business interests had heavily lobbied members of Congress before the committee was in operation.

“The farm lobby came in and they were telling people, ‘Cuba is like Costa Rica,’ ” Claver-Carone said. “We came in and started telling people, ‘Hey, here’s what’s really happening in Cuba.’ “

Though hard-line embargo supporters traditionally have been considered Republicans, the report shows the PAC shifting contributions to Democrats as they assumed control of the House and Senate in 2006.

In the 2004 election cycle, the PAC gave just 29 percent to Democrats. By 2008, the Democrats’ share was up to 59 percent.

(Barbara Barrett and David Goldstein contributed to this article.)