The World

The Beginning of the End of the Embargo?

 U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium December 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In what one longtime Cuba watcher is calling “the biggest day for U.S.-Cuban relations in 50 years,” the two governments announced a prisoner exchange today that removes some of the largest impediments to full diplomatic relations between the longtime adversaries. Both President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro are due to make statements later today, and according to ABC News, “The White House is indicating the beginning of new talks on everything from travel restrictions to eventual lifting of the Cuban embargo in place since John F. Kennedy was president.”

Alan Gross, an American who was arrested and charged with “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” in 2009 while attempting to deliver communications equipment to religious groups on the island as a subcontractor for USAID, has been released and is now en route back to the U.S. Gross was reportedly in poor health, and Obama had suggested earlier this month that his release would “remove an impediment to more constructive relations.”

(In an interesting coincidence, this development coincides with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah stepping down. In addition to the Gross affair, Shah’s agency has recently been involved in a number of Keystone Kops-ish democracy-promotion efforts in Cuba, including the creation of a Twitter-like social network and a campaign to infiltrate the island’s hip-hop community.)

The U.S., meanwhile, is releasing three members of the so-called Cuban Five—a group of men convicted in 2001 for attempting to spy on exile groups in Miami and who have become a cause célèbre back home. Two of the five have already been released after serving their sentences.

There’s been speculation for a long time now that Obama, who has already eased travel restrictions on Cuban families and rules on remittances and memorably shook hands with Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last year, would do something dramatic on Cuba in the remaining years of his presidency. His Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both attempted unsuccessfully to improve U.S.-Cuban relations, but there’s reason to think Obama will be more successful.

For one thing, support for the embargo, even among Florida voters and voters of Cuban descent, has never been lower. Prominent political figures, including Hillary Clinton, are feeling a lot more comfortable going on record against the embargo.

And while we certainly can’t say that Cuba is on the path toward democracy, Raúl Castro’s government has carried out some meaningful reforms, including loosening rules on travel and private property. Even the country’s best-known anti-Castro dissident, Yoani Sanchez, thinks the embargo is now counterproductive.

One thing that isn’t going to change is Congress, and that will limit just how much Obama can do on Cuba. Republicans, as well as Democrats like Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez, don’t seem likely to shift on their support for the embargo anytime soon.

The 1996 Helms-Burton Act enshrined the embargo as U.S. law—prior to that, it had been maintained through a series of executive orders. Rep. Dan Burton, one of the sponsors of that bill, predicted it would be the “the last nail in [Castro’s] coffin.” Almost two decades later, Castro is still alive while the bill constrains U.S. foreign policy.

There are, though, a number of things that Obama—who is increasingly conducting his foreign policy as if Congress doesn’t exist—can do on his own.

As a recent Economist column suggested, Obama could instruct the State Department to remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list, on which it still anachronistically sits. An Americas Society/Council of the Americas report from last year listed a number of other executive actions the White House could take under existing laws, including allowing U.S. businesses to buy products from non-state-controlled Cuban firms, expanding travel licenses to Cuba to include business travel, allowing American travelers to Cuba to have access to U.S. financial services, allowing the sale of telecommunications hardware to Cuba, and allowing Cuba to request assistance from the IMF and the World Bank. (Helms-Burton requires the U.S. to prevent Cuba from joining these organizations.)

(Update, 12:38 p.m. The measures announced by the White House on Wednesday include many of the steps mentioned above, including more travel licenses, allowing the export of goods to private Cuban enterprises, and the sale of communications equipment and authorizing U.S. credit and debit card use by U.S. travelers to Cuba. The State Department will also be reviewing Cuba’s state terrorism designation. More dramatically, the U.S. is re-establishing an embassy in Havana in the next few months and beginning talks on restoring full diplomatic relations. This was a lot faster and more sweeping than expected.) 

After today, it’s clear that Cuba is on Obama’s agenda. The effort could still be derailed, as Bill Clinton’s overtures were after Cuba shot down two U.S. planes in 1996. But more than likely, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of one of the least effective foreign policy initiatives in American history.