WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro recently announced their decision to begin normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries, potentially easing some of the severe political tension that has kept the nations isolated from each other for more than half a century.
The U.S. placed its first trade embargo on Cuba under the Eisenhower administration in 1960 and severed diplomatic relations in January 1961. President Obama has criticized his country’s longstanding approach to the island as a failure and announced that steps must be taken in a more unifying direction. He has ordered full diplomatic relations with Cuba as well as the establishment of an American embassy in Havana. This announcement came after more than a year of secret conversations between the two leaders, talks that had been aided by Pope Francis and culminated in a phone call between the presidents.
President Obama’s desire to repair Cuban relations is nothing new—he has expressed interest in doing so for the past few years, even loosening some travel restrictions in 2011. However, significant progress was hindered by Cuba’s continued imprisonment of Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor held in a Cuban prison since 2009. Although the Obama administration had been working to secure Gross’ freedom for years, his rapidly dwindling health placed more pressure on the Cuban government to grant his freedom. As a part of the deal, Cuba released Gross and an unnamed intelligence officer in exchange for three Cubans who had been imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001 for espionage.
Cuba will release 53 Cubans identified as political prisoners as well as allow greater Internet access, while the U.S. plans to loosen longstanding restrictions on travel, banking and remittances. Specifically, the easing of travel restrictions will allow easier access for family visits, public performances, and educational, professional and religious events. Regular tourism will remain banned. Changes to banking regulations will allow the use of credit and debit cards in Cuba. President Obama has also ordered Secretary of State John Kerry to gradually take Cuba off the list of nations that sponsor terrorism.
Although President Obama has the authority to make these changes, the embargo that the U.S. has imposed on Cuba for the past 54 years can only be lifted with Congress’ approval. This is a task that may prove to be problematic. Republicans slated to take control of the House and Senate next month have vocalized their commitment to opposing an embargo lift. Such a decision will likely prove especially unpopular among representatives from Florida, the home of many Cuban exiles who fled Castro’s rule.
The three Cuban-American Senate leaders have adamantly expressed their opposition to the idea of stronger relations with Cuba, insisting that such a decision could prove destabilizing and detrimental to Cuba’s public. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) described the recent exchange as an “asymmetrical trade” that will “invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) expressed similarly doubtful sentiments, claiming that the “the changes would further bolster Raul Castro in power” and claiming that lifting the embargo would go “a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.”
President Obama stands firmly behind his decision despite these opponents, stating, “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.”
– Shenel Ozisik
Sources: BBC News, NY Times, Time Magazine
Photo: Washington Post