Call: Don’t expect big changes soon on U.S. Cuba policy
By Eurasia Group analyst Heather Berkman Does the recent White House announcement on relaxation of U.S. policy toward Cuba signal bigger things to come? Probably. But while these first steps were easy to take, high political hurdles lie ahead — and substantial change in U.S.-Cuban relations is not yet on the horizon. These moves represent real ...
By Eurasia Group analyst Heather Berkman
By Eurasia Group analyst Heather Berkman
Does the recent White House announcement on relaxation of U.S. policy toward Cuba signal bigger things to come? Probably. But while these first steps were easy to take, high political hurdles lie ahead — and substantial change in U.S.-Cuban relations is not yet on the horizon.
These moves represent real change. The Obama administration announced it would lift restrictions on remittances, allow Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island, and ease telecommunications regulations. The announcement wasn’t surprising, given Obama’s campaign trail rhetoric, and it was probably timed to establish a cooperative tone leading up to this week’s Summit of the Americas.
But the White House is also testing the political waters for further changes to its Cuba policy and will probably wait to see if Congress takes the lead on removing the travel ban for all Americans. Obama has the power to sidestep lawmakers by issuing executive orders that don’t require congressional approval that encourage person-to-person communications and the exchange of information with the island. But there are bills pending in the Senate (the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act) and the House of Representatives that would abolish the travel ban altogether. The White House knows these laws might well pass, though they will face a long road through committees and procedural votes. Congressional action would provide Obama with useful political cover.
Cuban leaders would welcome a lifting of the universal travel ban, since it would provide a huge boost for the country’s tourism industry. But they also know there’s an element of White House strategy at work here. The changes to telecommunications policy will allow U.S. companies to work with Cuban carriers to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite telecommunications facilities linking the two countries, provide roaming services, and offer satellite radio and television service. Cuba’s low level of telephone usage (11 percent of the population, according to one estimate) and broadband subscription reveal huge growth potential in telecommunications.
This leaves the Cuban government with an uncomfortable choice: Open Cuba as never before to ideas and information from the United States, or keep the door closed and accept greater responsibility for Cuba’s international isolation. With Obama administration rhetoric aimed at promoting democracy on the island — ostensibly at the expense of the Castro regime — the Cuban government will remain cautious toward increased and unrestricted communication with the United States.
Despite these (significant) first steps, outright repeal of the 47-year-old economic embargo is not yet on the horizon. Domestic political considerations will continue to weigh heavily on congressional action, despite changes in Cuban-American demographics and evolving political attitudes among Cuban-American communities. A poll conducted in December 2008 by FIU-Brookings suggests that a small majority (55 percent) of Cuban-Americans now favor ending the embargo. But congressional action is required to rescind the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (known as Helms-Burton) that wrote the embargo into law, and the Obama administration will have to think long and hard about how much political capital it wants to spend on a broader diplomatic opening to Cuba.
Given other foreign-policy and domestic priorities, it won’t be an easy choice. The Castro regime could make the process easier with changes that address criticism of its human rights record and authoritarian governance. Raul Castro, who officially replaced his brother as president in early 2008, has enacted limited economic reforms, but Fidel continues to cast a very long shadow. Until both Castros leave the scene, government tolerance for genuine democratic reform on the island will remain limited.
The good news is that Fidel says Havana is ready for talks with Washington. The bad news: the aging revolutionary probably remains more interested in monologue than dialogue.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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