The cuban embargo has been a fact of life for Americans for over 50 years now. Yet it looks like this embargo could be ending very soon. After the release of a USAID subcontractor from a Havana prison, President Obama has declared a policy shift toward Cuba, which could be a huge benefit to the Cuban economy. These moves are just the beginning of what White House officials and foreign policy experts have described as a “sweeping set” of changes Obama’s been making to re-establish commercial and diplomatic ties with the US’ island neighbor.
The Treasury Department will be issuing a series of regulations to ease agricultural exports and establish banking relations, and the Commerce Department will move to permit American companies to export construction and telecommunications equipment, as well as other things, to Cuba. The State Department is also starting a review that could remove Cuba from a list of “state sponsors” of terrorism, which could clear away a major impediment to Havana’s ability to trade and access banking services around the world. When these actions are taken altogether, the embargo will soon have a lot of holes in it. As of yet, it is unclear when Obama could nominate an ambassador, which would set the stage for contentious confirmation hearings.
White House officials said that they had spent months determining how far Obama could go to loosen restrictions on trade and financial transactions with Cuba, concluding that he had broad authority to do so without violating the scope of the embargo. However, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers made it clear that Congress wasn’t likely to lift the embargo on its own anytime soon, with both sides criticizing these changes as an intention to circumvent the intent and spirit of US law and the US Congress. Officials don’t believe that the US needs to build a new embassy, since it would be housed in the Havana compound currently home to the US Interests Section. In addition, Cuba’s human rights record wouldn’t pose any obstacle to the restoration of relations.
Treasury and Commerce Department officials are quickly moving to tear down regulatory barriers to Americans’ ability to travel, conduct financial dealings and export products to Cuba. The Commerce Department said that it would be loosening various export limits, such as the sale of tools and equipment to small businesses. Restrictions on scientific, athletic and cultural goods, including musical instruments, will also be relaxed. The Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department will also be scrapping a measure requiring people already eligible for travel to Cuba to receive special permission from the government for trips such as family visits, business trips, religious and cultural programs and humanitarian projects. New rules will also make it easier to get there by allowing the direct purchase of airline tickets to Cuba rather than requiring travelers to go through a travel agent and charter a flight. The Treasury Department is also going to be quadrupling the amount of money that can be sent to Cubans each quarter, and is loosening banking restrictions.
One of the major potential steps toward resuming ties with Cuba would be its removal from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it’s been since 1982. This would be the most important step Obama can take before the restoration of full economic ties, and will mean that Cuba will no longer be subject to the sanctions and scrutiny of counterterrorism mechanisms set up in the aftermath of September 11th. The State Department would have six months to review Cuba’s place on the list, although the process could be expedited. The review will be considering whether Cuba has supported international terrorism over the past six months, and whether or not they have renounced the use of terrorism and ratified treaties against terrorism. If the State Department recommends that Cuba be removed from the list, Obama would need to approve it. The recommendation would then go to Congress, which wouldn’t be able to block the move except through separate legislation that the President would have to sign.