In the decades that followed the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which expanded the U.S. embargo on Cuba, successive presidential administrations have rebuffed calls to join the rest of the Western world in pursuing rapprochement. In a largely symbolic exercise, the United Nations General Assembly has voted annually to condemn the embargo, which is estimated to cost impoverished Cuba over $685 million each year.
But external pressure on the U.S. to change course has built up steam in recent years. The European Union, which does not observe an embargo, lifted diplomatic sanctions in 2008 and began another round of talks with Cuba earlier this year. The EU is still pressuring the Castro regime on its woeful human rights record, but has taken the position that punishing sanctions only serve to further impoverish the Cuban people.
The newly formed Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, made a similar statement this year by holding its second annual conference in the Cuban capital of Havana. According to Marc Hanson, a Cuba expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, the meeting “made it clear that Cuba had been accepted by everyone else in the Western Hemisphere for a very long time.”
Obama and Raul Castro, who took over the reins from his ailing brother, Fidel, in 2008, have both signaled since they came to power a willingness to inch their countries toward a détente. To great fanfare last December, the two used the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s funeral to shake hands — the first such gesture between the two heads of state since 2000.
Wednesday’s announcement, which included setting up embassies, increasing remittance allowances for Cuban exiles, and lifting travel sanctions, constitutes the most significant change of course in bilateral relations for decades. Obama has also ordered a review of Cuba’s position on the list of state sponsors of terror, which is considered an important step for resetting bilateral relations.
But the embargo remains intact, removable only through an act of Congress. That front has long been cemented in place by a hardline Cuban-American contingent in the United States, which wields outsized influence as a powerful voting bloc in the swing state of Florida. Cuban exiles of the oppressive Castro regime, along with like-minded Congressional leaders, assert that lifting sanctions — however ineffective they have proven to be — will only serve to reward the Castros for refusing to embrace reforms.