- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Casting aside a half-century of foreign policy, President Obama on Wednesday said the U.S. will normalize ties with Cuba, open an embassy in Havana and reduce trade and travel barriers — a seismic shift in America’s relationship with the communist island that drew praise from businesses eager to tap into the Cuban market but touched off a bipartisan firestorm on Capitol Hill.

The dramatic reversal in U.S. policy, which has stood since the early 1960s, comes after 18 months of secret high-level meetings in Canada and Vatican City, a personal appeal from Pope Francis and, in the final steps achieved over just the past few days, the long-awaited release of an American aid worker held in Cuba for five years and the return of several spies to the communist regime.

But the mending of relations between Washington and Havana, while opening a new market to a host of American industries and, among other things, rolling back a U.S. prohibition on Cuban cigars, won’t come without a fight.

Senators of both parties have issued blistering rebukes of the move, and a visibly angry Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida and a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, indicated he may look to block funding for a U.S. embassy in Cuba and could hold up the confirmation of a to-be-named American ambassador.

For Mr. Obama, the policy overhaul represents another attempt to engage with America’s perceived enemies and use diplomacy, rather than isolation, as a way to move U.S. interests forward.

Many analysts say the goal of fundamental political and social reforms in Cuba — such as greater freedom for the press and political expression — will be easier to achieve if Havana has formal, friendly ties with Washington.

SEE ALSO: Freed captive Alan Gross supports open relationship between U.S., Cuba

50 years of failure

In a speech at the White House, the president said the U.S. remains committed to that goal, and he also blasted a Cuba policy that had stood for more than 50 years through administrations of both parties, saying it has proven to be an utter failure.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse,” the president said. “Even if that worked — and it hasn’t for 50 years — we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”

In addition to restoring diplomatic ties, the administration also will review Cuba’s status on a list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Wednesday’s actions also will allow Cuban-Americans to send more money back home to family members on the island.

The Obama administration also engaged in a spy swap and secured the release of American aid worker Alan Gross after five years of captivity in Cuba on spying charges that the U.S. says were trumped up.

The broad agreement came under fire from both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said the president’s actions have vindicated the actions of the Castro government, virtually guaranteeing profound human rights abuses on the island will continue.

“This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people,” he said in a statement.

Congress to block?

Mr. Rubio, while praising the return of Mr. Gross, went even further in blasting the deal while also raising the notion of blocking the administration’s actions through legislative tools.

“I’m committed to doing everything I can to unravel as many of these changes as I can,” he said in a press conference moments after the president spoke. “I intend to use every tool at our disposal in the majority [in the Senate] to unravel as many of these changes as possible.”

The Florida Republican also said the administration’s entire undertaking is “based on an illusion” that the Cuban people will benefit politically and in the human rights realm from a renewed economic relationship with the U.S.

Some analysts dispute that, saying American ties could serve as an impetus for the Cuban people to gradually push the Communist Party from power and move the nation toward a more inclusive political system.

“The economic changes that are taking place, the political changes on the island all of that will happen better and faster with normal economic and diplomatic relationships with the United States. I think that’s the major calculus” of the administration, said Julia E. Sweig, director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Business bonanza

For many U.S. industries, Wednesday’s announcement brought with it great promise.

From cars to fitness to fast food, American businesses are ready to do business in Cuba and see a potentially lucrative market. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue called the move a “substantive and positive step forward,” and his comments were echoed across the U.S. economy.

“It’s an enormous rice market,” said Dwight Roberts, CEO of the U.S. Rice Producers Association, which predicts Cuba eventually could import as much as 400,000 tons of American rice.

General Motors spokesman Pat Morrissey told The Associated Press the U.S. car giant will “evaluate the opportunities” in Cuba.

Gym company Anytime Fitness says it may begin plans for a Cuban franchise.

“There’s not the awareness of the importance of regular exercise, and certainly not in a gym environment,” said John Kersh, the company’s head of international development.

Fast-food chain Fatburger aims to ultimately have six to 12 stores on the island, according to its CEO, Anthony Wiederhorn.

Analysts say there’s an intersection of potential political and economic benefits for the U.S.: The Castros no longer can paint Washington as the boogeyman responsible for a languishing Cuban economy.

“The president’s move should be uncontroversial. U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a blatant failure. It has not brought about democracy to the island and instead provided Havana with an excuse to portray itself as the victim of U.S. aggression. It has also served as the scapegoat for the dilapidated state of Cuba’s economy,” said Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a policy analyst on Latin America at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Limits to Obama power

Moving forward, Mr. Rubio and other lawmakers hold some leverage over the future of America’s relationship with the communist nation just 90 miles from U.S. shores.

While the president can unilaterally restart diplomatic ties, there are limits to how far he can go in other avenues.

Wednesday’s actions will make trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba easier, but a formal embargo — codified by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act — can only be overturned by Congress.

With the embargo still in place, an American traveler to Cuba can, for example, return home with up to $400 of Cuban goods, including up to $100 of alcohol and tobacco products. The direct export of cigars and other products from Cuba to the U.S., however, still is forbidden.

Mr. Rubio said with certainty Wednesday that Congress will not overturn the embargo, which was put in place in 1962 and severely limits what products U.S. businesses can sell in Cuba and bans virtually all Cuban imports.

The embargo, according to Cuban estimates, has cost the island more than $1 trillion over the past 50 years. It was strengthened with the Helms-Burton Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton and further penalizes any companies doing business with Cuba.

“The embargo is still in place. We’re going to have to wait and see and, like everybody else, figure out exactly what this means for us,” said Craig Williamson, president of the Cigar Association of America, which represents cigar manufacturers, distributors and importers.

Pope’s involvement

White House officials said talks between U.S. and Cuban officials began in spring 2013, with Canada hosting the meetings but not taking part in them. Those talks continued over the next year, culminating in a round of negotiations in Vatican City in October.

Those talks came in conjunction with appeals from Pope Francis to both Mr. Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, the brother of iconic Cuban strongman Fidel Castro.

The pontiff, officials said, played a central role in bringing the two sides to the table and urging them to end a multigenerational diplomatic standoff.

Pope Francis issued a statement Wednesday offering “warm congratulations” and noting the Catholic Church’s role in inviting the governments “to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners.”

“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” the Vatican secretary of state said in a statement.

The landmark deal wasn’t finalized, however, until Cuba agreed to release Mr. Gross. With that agreement in place, Mr. Obama spoke with Raul Castro by phone Tuesday night, White House officials said.

Mr. Gross returned to the U.S. on Wednesday in visibly poor health but called on both nations to end their “mutually belligerent policies.”

The U.S. administration released three Cuban spies — members of the so-called “Cuban Five” arrested in the late 1980s — in exchange for a Cuban national who acted as a “critical” U.S. intelligence asset, officials said. The asset had been imprisoned for more than 20 years; administration officials would not identify him. They also said that swap was not related to Mr. Gross’s freedom.

The Castro government said it is releasing more than 50 political prisoners, seen by proponents of the deal as proof that Cuba is willing to embrace at least some level of political reform.

Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide