President Obama’s announcement to overhaul U.S. policy toward Cuba is historic. Given the ossified status of the relationship between both nations—frozen in time for decades despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War—Washington’s engagement is significant and welcome.
Obama’s announced measures—a spy swap, loosening of travel and economic restrictions, and launching of discussions to re-establish full diplomatic relations—go as far as the president can go without congressional authorization. Since the passing of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, the lifting of the most important economic sanctions, particularly the trade embargo and travel ban, requires the approval of Congress. Unlike previous ad hoc measures toward Cuba, the economic measures announced by the president represent meaningful policy change, and they seem to closely follow the recommendations put forward by the Cuba Study Group in a white paper last year.
As part of the deal, Cuba released U.S. contractor Alan Gross after five years of imprisonment. Gross was arrested while working to expand Internet access for Havana’s Jewish community, an act that the Cuban authorities deemed to be “undermining the state.”
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. Moreover, according to government reports, the embargo has also become somewhat of a U.S. security liability itself.
As for the economic measures, they are significant in symbolism, yet limited in their likely impact as long as Cuba retains its failed communist economic system. The 114th Congress should pick up where the president left off and move to fully end the trade embargo and lift the travel ban on Cuba.