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A New Direction for America’s Cuba Policy

Tags: Obama , Congress , Cold War , Politics , United States

Saunders, Paul J.

January 26, 2015

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US-Cuba ties took a major step forward with the announcement that the two countries would normalize relations. While the move was widely accepted by the US public, Paul Saunders believes that domestic politics may create obstacles in the short run.

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The Obama administration’s dramatic announcement that the United States will normalize relations with Cuba, establish an embassy in Havana, and loosen a variety of trade, financial and travel restrictions establishes a fundamentally new direction for US policy toward one of its closest neighbors.

Nevertheless, despite majority public support for the moves—and widespread popular acceptance that the five-decade US effort to isolate Cuba has failed—following through will not be easy. Indeed, with presidential elections looming in 2016 and broad political challenges facing an administration many see as weak, domestic politics may create significant obstacles in the short term. Over time, however, the prospects for a better US-Cuba relationship may improve.

Only the First Step

The most significant elements of the administration’s new policy are plans to open a US Embassy in Cuba and to review the US designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, as well as moves to ease travel regulations and trade rules (which took effect on January 16, 2015). The administration has so far had nothing to say about Cuban-Americans’ property rights—an issue of great importance to many who fled the Cuban Revolution—and have suggested that the status of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay is not on the table.

Notwithstanding the symbolic impact (and practical convenience for diplomats) of normalizing relations, it is the first step in building a new relationship with Cuba, not the last one. Likewise, loosening regulations governing travel and commerce can only do so much within the limits of current US law. From this perspective, removing the terrorism designation—which requires a review process that the White House has said should take no longer than six months—may be the most important step, in that it would actually end certain sanctions. But many more will remain in effect.

Of course, the biggest problem in going any further is the Republican Congress. Lifting the embargo on Cuba will require passing legislation to undo multiple rounds of sanctions, something toward which Senate and House Republicans presently seem disinclined. Likewise, sending a US Ambassador to Havana will require a Senate confirmation vote. Neither will be simple—or happen soon. (Either or both of these tasks may well fall to Obama’s successor, if he or she wants to do it.) Senate action in particular could falter if any one of the body’s three Cuban-American Senators decided to block it.

History is a useful reminder of the obstacles. In an interesting coincidence, a Republican Congress passed the last major sanctions legislation (the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996) during a Democratic administration. Many Democrats supported the bill, though with House Republicans theoretically able to pass it without any Democratic support and the 1996 elections approaching, some may have done so to avoid paying a price during the campaign for casting a vote that would not affect the outcome. Still, since this was the last big vote on Cuba, the vote totals may be useful to review: 74-24 favoring tighter sanctions in the Senate, and 294-130 in the House of Representatives. Republicans today actually have larger majorities in both chambers.

No Longer a Threat?

Still, public opinion has evolved substantially since that time. According to a January 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center, 63% of Americans now support normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba and 66% support ending the embargo, despite the fact that only 32% think that Cuba will become more democratic afterward. [www.people-press.org/2015/01/16/most-support-stronger-u-s-ties-with-cuba/]

Notably, a CNN/Opinion Research poll found that between 1997 and 2014 the share of Americans who considered Cuba a “very serious” threat fell by more than half, while the number saying that it is “not a threat” nearly doubled. A combined total of 72% believe that Cuba is “not a threat” or only a “slight threat.” In contrast, the same poll found that about 70% of Americans see Iran, North Korea and Russia as “moderately serious” or “very serious” threats. [www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/12/18/whos-afraid-of-cuba-almost-nobody-anymore/]

No less significantly, an early 2014 Florida International University poll shows similar (and somewhat larger) majorities favoring normalization and an end to travel restrictions. [https://cri.fiu.edu/research/cuba-poll/2014-fiu-cuba-poll.pdf] A narrow majority of 52% oppose continuing the embargo—but some 63% believe that Cuba should remain on the terrorism list. Younger respondents and those who arrived in the United States since 1995 tend to support an opening to Cuba, while older people and those who fled the island earlier are more skeptical.

Taking all of this into account, the administration’s clear intent to move forward slowly with further changes is probably wise. Unless something unexpected happens, public opinion will probably continue to support greater engagement. Likewise, if the process shows slow but steady progress, its opponents may find themselves in a weaker position in the future.

At the same time, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and current leader Raul Castro will not get any younger. Eventual leadership changes in Cuba might contribute to a more favorable domestic political environment in the United States by removing these two highly visible symbols of the past. That said, if Senator Marco Rubio (or Senator Ted Cruz) wins the presidency in 2016, outreach to Havana might stop abruptly.

The Obama administration is unlikely to complete its effort to change US policy toward Cuba before the president’s term ends, but his successor will have important new options.

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