For U.S. President Barack Obama, this week’s trip to Cuba helps cement a foreign-policy legacy that now includes ending more than five decades of strife with a onetime Cold War rival. For Cuban President Raúl Castro, the visit represents a chance to welcome American tourists and businesses. But without help from Congress, Obama will have done about all he can to normalize relations.
What the American president has done since the normalization process began in December 2014 is significant. He has made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel there, though tourism in the traditional sense is still prohibited. Obama has eased restrictions on U.S. businesses plying their trade in Cuba; as he visited, Starwood Hotels & Resorts became the first U.S. hotel chain to sign a deal with Cuba since the 1959 revolution. Obama is set to attend a Major League Baseball exhibition game in Havana on Tuesday. In December 2015, Washington and Havana announced the resumption of direct flights between the countries.
But Obama can’t do much more unless Congress acts to repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which formalized the embargo put in place by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and bars the executive branch from lifting it without congressional approval. In other words, without the help of Congress, Obama can’t fully lift all financial penalties against Havana, and proponents of the move have acknowledged that is unlikely to happen while Republicans control both the House and the Senate. Some Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), have vowed to fight it down the line. As Obama roamed Havana Monday, Ros-Lehtinen posted the tweet below:
— Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (@RosLehtinen) March 21, 2016
“From Obama’s standpoint, his problem is Helms-Burton,” Danforth Newcomb, a Cuba sanctions expert at the law firm Shearman & Sterling, said. “He’s getting to the end of what he can do without congressional help.”
It’s a point not lost on Castro, who used a press conference with Obama to condemn the remaining sanctions and press Congress to lift them. He called the changes to date: “positive but insufficient.”
“Much more could be done if the U.S. blockade were lifted,” he said. “We recognize the position of President Obama and his administration against the blockade and his repeated appeals to Congress to have it removed.”
Castro added, “The blockade remains in force, and it contains discouraging elements and intimidating effects and [is guilty of] extraterritorial outreach.”
Castro also called on Obama to return Guantánamo Bay to Cuba and to stop “destabilization in Venezuela.” He also said he opposed American “political manipulation.”
Obama, for his part, said for decades “the sight of a U.S. president in Havana would have been unimaginable. But this is a new day.” He used his comments to stress Washington’s continuing disapproval of Cuba’s human rights record and mistreatment of political prisoners. He, like Castro, urged Congress to move to eliminate the longstanding embargo.
“The list of things we can do administratively is getting shorter,” Obama said in response to a reporter’s question. Future alterations require “Congress making changes,” he said, but lawmakers are “not as active as I’d like” during presidential campaigns.
But he promised, “The embargo is going to end. When? I can’t be entirely sure … and the path is going to continue beyond my administration.”
Beyond the comments, the very sight of the U.S. president in Cuba was jarring. He laid a wreath at the foot of a memorial to Cuban independence hero and poet José Martí, located in the center of La Plaza de la Revolución, a square as important and revered in Cuba as Moscow’s Red Square. As he stood in front of it, a Cuban military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Amid pomp, he was welcomed by Castro, who made a formal diplomatic appearance Monday morning.
The most controversial leg of Obama’s trip comes Tuesday, when he is scheduled to meet with dissidents like Berta Soler, the leader of Ladies in White, an opposition group comprising wives and other female relatives of jailed Castro opponents. In advance of Obama’s visit, dozens of arrests were made at the group’s weekly march. Obama is also set to directly address the Cuban people Tuesday, though it remains unclear how many Cubans will actually see it due to government media restrictions.
“A big piece will be his [meetings] with the dissidents and civil society, all of which are designed to deal with domestic agenda items like the human rights record of the Cubans,” Newcomb said.
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