Obama's Cuba Moves Do Little to End the Economic War on Havana

A group of U.S. lawmakers visiting Cuba has called on the Obama administration to join every other country in the Western hemisphere in normalizing relations with Cuba. “Most of the members of our delegation believe we need to actually normalize relations and then the details of what that means would follow,” said Representative Barbara Lee, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is leading the Congressional delegation. Most recently, El Salvador’s new president, Mauricio Funes, broke with the U.S. position, saying he would reopen ties in June when he officially takes over. Costa Rica has pledged the same, leaving Washington alone in its half-century-long policy.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, recently “called on President Obama to appoint a special envoy to initiate direct talks with the island’s communist government and to end U.S. opposition to Cuba’s membership in the Organization of American States.” While his letter was filled with the language of empire and U.S. “interests,” Lugar called on Obama “to recast a policy that has not only failed to promote human rights and democracy, but that also undermines our broader security and political interests in the Western Hemisphere.” Lugar stopped short of calling for a total lifting of the blockade, but his appeal for an envoy could be seen as a step in that direction.

Despite calls from some of Obama’s closest Congressional allies, his administration is unlikely to end the blockade against Cuba. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal cites a senior U.S. official, revealing, “President Obama doesn’t intend to call for lifting of the trade embargo against Cuba, which would require congressional action, nor is any specific diplomatic outreach contemplated.” This point was also made clear by Vice President Joe Biden last month on a visit to Latin America when asked if Obama would lift the blockade. Biden responded bluntly, “No,”

There was a point in Barack Obama’s political career when he advocated for a dramatically different approach to U.S.-Cuba policy than most politicians with a decent shot at winning the White House. In January 2004, Obama said it was time “to end the embargo with Cuba,” and said, “It’s time for us to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed.” After it became clear that Obama might well be within arm’s reach of the presidency, he began to use harder line rhetoric and, as most politicians do, he pandered to the right-wing Cuban-American mafia in Florida (which, by the way, decreasingly represents the views of most Cuban-Americans). “I will maintain the embargo,” he declared on the campaign trail last year in front of the ultra-right-wing Cuban American National Foundation. “It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That’s the way to bring about real change in Cuba -- through strong, smart and principled diplomacy.” While Obama has said he supports “eventual normalization” of U.S.-Cuba relations, his bottom line is this: “Make no mistake – the embargo must remain, and I strongly oppose any aid to the Castro regime.”

Over the past several days, Cuba has popped up in U.S. press reports because of speculation that Obama may make some adjustments to Cuba travel policy, as it relates to the Cuban-American community. According to reports in the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets, Obama is considering allowing Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island nation as often as they wish and to send an unlimited amount of money to relatives living in Cuba, both of which would be departures from Bush-era policies. This comes as little surprise given that Obama pledged bluntly to do so while on the campaign trail (which was hardy a bold move given that it has wide support among Miami Cubans). “I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island,” Obama said in Miami on May 23. “It’s time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It’s time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.”

According to The New York Times, “The White House is expected to announce the action before Mr. Obama travels to Trinidad and Tobago for a meeting on April 17 of Latin American and Caribbean leaders.”

Possible Obama action on Cuba travel comes after Congress approved legislation earlier this years that, in the words of the WSJ, “had the effect of rolling back the Bush rules:”

As they now stand, family members -- broadly defined -- may visit once a year. The rules on how much money family members can send to Cuba, which date to 1978, have also changed with various administrations, but under Mr. Bush, funds were limited to a maximum of $300 per quarter for each household in Cuba receiving them. Remittances from the U.S. to Cuba now amount to around $700 million a year.

While a step in the right direction, Obama’s move to ease some travel resitrictions are being framed with anti-Cuba rhetoric and do not do anything to address the decades-long economic blockade of Cuba. Actual change in U.S.-policy toward Cuba would decriminalize travel to Cuba by any U.S. citizen or resident and allow Cuba to do business and trade freely and openly with whomever it chooses.

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