- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Obama administration should — and has the legal authority to — use its executive power to begin lifting the decades-old embargo on trade with Cuba, according to two papers this week issued by an influential Latin America think tank and a leading Cuban exile group.

The New York-based Council on the Americas and the Washington-based Cuba Study Group both call on the White House to ease the 60-year-old embargo in order to promote free market activity on the communist island.

The State Department so far has declined to comment on the documents, but one official described the Council on the Americas as “influential” and told The Washington Times that the State Department does “appreciate their views.”

Circulation of the white papers came the same week that a delegation of U.S. lawmakers, headed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, met with Cuban President Raul Castro in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the release of Maryland contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009.

Mr. Gross is accused of illegally bringing communications equipment to Cuba as part of a democracy-building program supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development. His detention remains a source of friction between Washington and Havana.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland categorically denied a Boston Globe report Thursday which suggested that newly confirmed Secretary of State John F. Kerry may be seriously considering removing Havana from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism as a first step to improved relations.

Citing interviews with “a series of top administration officials and members of Congress,” the newspaper reported that “there is a growing consensus in policy and intelligence circles that Cuba’s support for terrorist groups has been terminated and the country should be removed from the list — much like the George W. Bush administration did with North Korea in 2008.”

Ms. Nuland said The Globe piece was “incorrect,” telling reporters at Thursday’s briefing that “this department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

She added, however, that officials review the list annually and will do so during 2013.

Questions about Cuba’s status coincide with growing speculation in Washington that Mr. Kerry — a former Democratic senator from Massachusetts — may be eager to push the White House toward an easing of relations with the communist island.

Mr. Kerry did not single out Cuba during his wide-ranging foreign policy address Wednesday at the University of Virginia, but he did publish an article in 2009 in The St. Petersburg Times calling for a lifting of all restrictions to travel to the island.

The white papers circulated this week argue that Mr. Obama should do just that despite a law preventing the restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations without congressional approval.

The 1996 Helms-Burton Act also blocks the lifting of the embargo on trade unless significant democratic reforms are implemented and a functional democratic government is established on the island.

The Cuba Study Group called on Congress to repeal the 1996 law, saying it would allow the White House to “adopt more efficient, targeted policies necessary for pressuring the Cuban leadership to respect human rights and implement political reforms, while simultaneously empowering all other sectors of society to purse their economic well-being and become the authors of their own futures.”

The Council on the Americas paper argues that Mr. Obama could work around restrictions associated with Cuba’s current status as a state sponsor of terrorism. The White House, according to the paper, should “grant exceptions” for “sales and imports” of goods for businesses in Cuba that can prove they are not working for the Castro regime, as well as allowing for the “sale of telecommunications hardware” such as cellphone towers and satellite dishes in Cuba.