Probably Too Soon to Call Cuba Policy Change ‘Historic’


The news from Havana and Washington about normalizing relations may not be as significant in the long term as some in the administration hope.

While President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday that he will normalize relations with Cuba is the biggest diplomatic breakthrough with the island after six decades of hostilities, his speech may have been less “historic” than he portrayed it, according to numerous U.S. congressional sources and Cuba experts.

“I don’t think this is going to amount to much,” said Jaime Suchlicki, head of the Cuban Institute at the University of Miami. “Regardless of what President Obama said today, he needs congressional approval for making any major changes in U.S. relations with Cuba.”

Suchlicki and other experts cited four reasons why the announcement over time might not turn out to be as significant as many in the administration believe.

First, while the 1960 U.S. embargo on Cuba has been gradually eroded over the decades and the United States has become the largest supplier of food and agricultural products to the island, the U.S. economic sanctions remain in place, and can only be lifted by Congress. Overall, American companies are still barred from buying or selling goods to Cuba, or extending credit to the island without special U.S. government permits.

In his speech Wednesday, Obama announced, among other things, plans to open a U.S. Embassy in Havana, a dramatic increase in exceptions to the travel ban on Americans wanting to visit Cuba, an expansion of commercial activities under new exceptions to the U.S. embargo, and possible U.S. support for loans from multi-lateral financial institutions to Cuba. Obama, who also announced the release of U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross from Cuban prison, said the measures are “the most significant changes in our [Cuba] policy in more than 50 years.”

Second, with the Republican takeover of Congress in the Nov. 4 midterm elections, a lifting of the embargo is highly unlikely. What’s more, there will be strong pressures from Cuban-American legislators to block Obama’s measures, the experts say.

Republican leaders such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida are already denouncing Obama for allegedly exceeding his presidential authority with Wednesday’s announcements of increased U.S. travel and commerce to Cuba.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), outgoing chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an Obama ally on key foreign policy issues, said Wednesday that when the new Congress convenes in January, he will urge incoming committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) “to hold hearings on this dramatic and mistaken change of policy.”

Third, while there has been no U.S. Embassy in Cuba since 1961, the United States has had a permanent diplomatic mission on the island ever since, known as the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. By some measures, it is already one of the largest foreign diplomatic missions on the island, and its transformation into a U.S. Embassy may only be a change in name.

“This is a game of smoke and mirrors,” said Frank Calzon, head of the Center for a Free Cuba, about the White House’s plans for an embassy on the island. “Many people ignore the fact that there are already more American diplomats in Cuba than there are Canadian, Spanish or even Russian diplomats there.”

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