President Obama’s easing of the embargo on Cuba may seem like a sudden jolt after more than a half-century of dogged adherence to a policy that the U.S. leader admitted Tuesday had failed — but in fact, the shift has been long in the making.
Obama himself had earlier signaled that the release of aid worker Alan Gross after five years in a Cuban prison would simply check the final box allowing a major U.S. policy overhaul. And on Wednesday, the former USAID contractor was freed in exchange of three Cubans held in Florida, allowing Washington to hit reset on diplomatic relations with Havana.
It also comes after earlier tinkering with U.S. policy.
Obama lifted some travel and money-sending restrictions to Cuba in 2009 and early 2011. Since then, an estimated 400,000 Cuban-Americans have traveled to the island nation every year.
Money also flowed. In 2012 alone, Cuba received $2.6 billion in remittances, representing a huge spike over the previous year. Last year that figure reached $2.77 billion, and 2014 is expected to witness a further increase. All of which have given young Cuban-Americans an increasing interest in Cuba’s economic future.
Cuba’s leadership has also shown a willingness to experiment with reform in recent years. While the regime led by Raul Castro continues to restrict free speech, it has increased the space for open conversation. The government has recently also allowed more Cubans, including high profile dissidents like Yoani Sánchez, to travel freely abroad — and return to the island. A law approved by Cuban parliament early this year also permitted Cubans living abroad to invest in some businesses on the island. In an effort to make Cuba more attractive to foreign investors, the law slices taxes on profits from 30 percent to 15 percent and gives investors an eight-year exemption from taxes — all in an effort to modernize Cuba’s economy.
Back in the U.S., there is a growing sense that political attitudes on dealing with the communist-ruled island have fundamentally shifted, not least among Cuban-Americans.
In this year’s gubernatorial race in Florida, for example, Democratic candidate Charlie Crist campaigned heavily against the U.S.-Cuba embargo — once an unthinkable choice for a candidate in that state. Crist may have narrowly lost the election, but he actually won the Cuban-American vote: 50 percent of Cuban-Americans voted for Crist while his opponent Rick Scott garnered 46 percent.
Hillary Clinton, widely expected to run for president in 2016, this summer called for ending the 53-year-old Cuban embargo — which bodes well for further a thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations. These political moves may be less controversial than they might seem, given mounting public support for the embargo’s end. For years, polls have indicated that a majority of Americans are ready to normalize relations with Cuba, including a recent Atlantic Council poll showing that 79 percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida call for greater engagement with the island nation.
Despite Obama’s announced reforms — the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and a U.S. embassy in Havana, and U.S.-Cuba migration talks in January — Congress must tackle the Helms-Burton Act to crystalize U.S. reform toward Cuba. The 1996 legislation, championed by influential Cuban-American lobby headquartered in Miami, cemented a draconian policy initiative that for decades had never been designated by law. The legislation coded an economic chokehold on Cuba in an effort to expel Fidel Castro from office.
The potential for long-lasting reform seemingly rests on how Congress tackles Helms-Burton. Support for lifting the embargo exists among GOP senators. But the position of those in the House of Representatives is more of a mystery. A host of incoming members don’t have a Cuba platform at all, but they do believe that less government involvement in public life is a good thing. And for some of these legislators, ending the Helms-Burton is a solution to that.
But some Cuba watchers say Obama has considerable leeway despite the legislation. “Obama has the constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign policy,” said Marc Hansen, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Helms-Burton strips away some of that authority, but the president has broad authority to allow more travel and establish new diplomatic ties. He can streamline export provisions. Obama also has the authority to lift Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism — a move that in the near future would prove most effective in easing relations. More importantly, perhaps, Obama has the opportunity to change the dynamics of U.S.-Cuba relations for generations to come. “U.S. politics toward Cuba have been fundamentally uprooted,” said Hansen. “This is a tremendous opportunity to change the relationship.”