- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2015

President Obama’s policy shift on Cuba could soon lead to the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana, but analysts and congressional insiders say it could be years before the decades-old embargo on trade with the communist island is lifted, despite mounting pressure from U.S. business groups.

Republicans controlling both houses of Congress simply won’t accept a sweeping lift of the embargo without clear evidence that the government of Cuban President Raul Castro is improving its human rights record, said Al Cardenas, an influential Cuban-American political player and former chairman of the American Conservative Union.

“If Cuba starts to show significant progress on human rights, say by freeing political prisoners, then shifting the Cuban economy away from total military control to allow some private involvement — like what we’ve seen in Vietnam, for instance — then it’s conceivable that opposition in Congress may soften,” Mr. Cardenas said.

He spoke just a week after Republican leaders — let alone every member of the Cuban-American delegation in Congress — slammed Mr. Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the official U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

“The Obama administration has handed the Castro regime a significant political win in return for nothing,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said in response to the delisting on May 29.

But some Latin America policy analysts say momentum is building unexpectedly quickly to open a Cuban embassy in Washington and a U.S. embassy in Havana, and that the onus is increasingly on Mr. Castro to convince U.S. lawmakers of his government’s willingness to change.

“With the setting-up of embassies in both capitals, which appears to be imminent, the ball is now in the Cubans’ court,” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “The question is how they will respond to keen interest in the U.S. for greater commerce and investment.”

Mr. Castro, the 84-year-old younger brother of longtime Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, reportedly wanted his country to be removed from the terrorist sponsor list before moving further toward normalized relations. With that achieved, a major question is the extent to which Mr. Castro is willing to yield to U.S. conservatives — long aligned with anti-Castro Cuban exiles in the United States — to make reforms.

“They will likely be cautious and move slowly as they remain committed to sticking with their economic and political models,” Mr. Shifter told The Washington Times.

One factor could dramatically change Havana’s calculus: Venezuela.

Mr. Cardenas said roughly 25 percent of Cuba’s gross domestic product comes from proceeds the Castro government receives from reselling highly subsidized oil provided by the socialist government in Venezuela.

But political tumult has been spreading in Caracas since the death of longtime populist President Hugo Chavez in 2013, and the Venezuelan economy has suffered as global oil prices have dropped.

Mr. Cardenas said the Castro government is anxious about the survivability of Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro.

“If it doesn’t and there’s a regime change in Venezuela and the oil help is no longer available, then I think Cuba is going to be in a bigger hurry to significantly change their politics toward the United States,” he said.

In the interim, Republicans in Washington are likely to yield at least slightly to growing pressure from American businesses, which are eager to get a foothold inside Cuba lest they fall further behind foreign rivals willing to cut deals with the Castro government without demanding human rights concessions.

Havana announced last month that it had signed a major Gulf of Mexico oil exploration deal with France. During a historic visit to Cuba, French President Francois Hollande publicly called on Washington to end the trade embargo.

Chipping away

Such developments may not change Republican minds but could have an impact on what Mr. Cardenas and Mr. Shifter expect to be a growing willingness in Congress to chip away at the embargo by surgically lifting restrictions on certain U.S. business sectors, particularly telecommunications and agriculture.

“You can certainly make the case that parts of the embargo might be lifted,” said Mr. Cardenas. “I think both Republicans and Democrats are in agreement that the more access the Cuban people have to things like cellphones, the better the chances are that Cuba will have a future that looks different than today.”

The catch, he said, is that no one in Congress on either side of the aisle has crafted legislation that focuses specifically on telecommunications trade. “The bills that have been filed are bills that deal with lifting the total embargo,” Mr. Cardenas said.

At the same time, he said, the GOP consensus against lifting the embargo could face a strong challenge from Republican lawmakers in agriculture-heavy states, where pressure is mounting from farm-related business interests for access to Cuban markets.

“These are businesses who are saying, ‘Hey, we want to start selling products in Cuba,’” said Mr. Cardenas, who suggested that Republican leaders might embrace an easing of agricultural trade restrictions as a way to persuade Republicans in those states to stop short of demanding a total lifting of the embargo.

Last week, anti-Cuban lawmakers showed that they still have clout when the Republican-controlled House voted 247-176 to preserve a provision in a transportation funding bill that would have blocked rules issued in January to significantly ease travel restrictions to Cuba and allow regularly scheduled flights. The White House has threatened to veto the bill, in part because of the Cuba-related provision.

The embargo was first imposed in 1960 roughly two years after Fidel Castro led a Marxist revolution that overthrew the Cuban government. U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties were severed during subsequent years, and tensions soared with a CIA-backed attempt by exiles to overthrow Mr. Castro and with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

While the Obama administration’s plan for lifting the embargo remains murky, and despite the lack of a U.S. embassy in Havana, the number of U.S. citizens traveling to the island has risen 37 percent since Mr. Obama signaled his intention to reach a detente in December.

Thousands of Americans are flying into Cuba from third countries such as Mexico to sidestep U.S. restrictions on tourism.

From January through early May, 51,458 Americans visited Cuba, compared with 37,459 over that period last year, said Jose Luis Perello Cabrera, an economist in the University of Havana’s tourism studies department with access to official figures, according to The Associated Press.

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