Some in congress balk as White House plows ahead with Cuba policy
BY JIM WYSS JWYSS@MIAMIHERALD.COM
12/17/2014 9:46 PM 12/17/2014 11:11 PM
Even before President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes in U.S.
policy toward Cuba on Wednesday, his congressional opponents were vowing
to undermine any attempt at rapprochement.
With Republicans in control of the House and Senate next year,
opposition to reforms could be stiff, but it’s unclear how much Congress
can push back against the White House.
Congress does control the purse strings and might use its power to deny
funding for an embassy in Havana, or withhold financing from sections of
the State Department tasked with normalizing relations with the island.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for one, said he would use his role as the
incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western
Hemisphere subcommittee to block the reforms, calling them a “a terrible
setback for the hopes of all oppressed people around the globe.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, went further and said Obama may have
broken several laws by acting unilaterally, including the Cuban Liberty
and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996, the Cuban Democracy
Act of 1992, and the Trading with the Enemy Act.
“The White House attempts to normalize relationships with Cuba without
the approval of Congress may be in direct violation of Helms-Burton that
specifically states that all political prisoners must be released and
free and fair elections must be held before establishing a diplomatic
relationship,” she said in a statement. “This misguided action by
President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit
activities, trample on fundamental freedoms and disregard democratic
Senior administration officials insist that Obama was well within his
rights to make the reforms via executive decree.
Along with seeking full diplomatic ties, the changes will expand the
types of goods that can be exported to the island — including material
for residential construction, agricultural machinery and much-needed
telecommunications equipment. In addition, U.S. companies will be
allowed to do business with Cuban companies not on the island;
remittances to Cuba will be increased from $500 to $2,000 per quarter;
and financial institutions will be allowed to set up branches in Cuba.
But there are still barriers in place. Despite increasing commercial
ties, trade with state enterprises, for example, remains prohibited. And
while there are 12 broad categories of people who can now legally visit
the island, U.S. law prohibits general tourism.
“We are basically doing everything we can within the statutory
limitations to facilitate travel to Cuba,” said a senior administration
official who was speaking on background.
For the most part, Obama has gone about as far as he can before bumping
into the restrictions imposed by the Helms Burton embargo law, said Gary
Clyde?Hufbauer with the Peterson Institute for International Economics
and the co-author of the book Economic Normalization with Cuba: A
Roadmap for U.S. Policymakers.
Obama’s actions would likely be limited to marginal changes, like
further relaxing travel restrictions or raising the $160 per-diem that
business executives are restricted to on the island. He could also
direct the FAA to begin certifying Cuban planes to ease travel back and
“But to be honest, he may be near the end of his string” on potential
reforms, Hufbauer said.
“If Obama really wanted to be gutsy, he could argue that Helms-Burton is
an unconstitutional infringement on presidential power,” he said. “But
that would be a poke in the eye to Congress.”
The Helms-Burton legal framework continues to be a roadblock for
U.S.-Cuba relations, said Michael Shifter, president of the
“There continue to be limits of large-scale trade and investment. But
Obama has ample authority to bypass restrictions when it would serve
U.S. interests,” he said in an email from Cuba. “It is reasonable to
expect more trade, more communication and more cooperation between the
two countries. Short of repealing the embargo legislation, if the U.S.
decides to remove Cuba from the list of states that support terrorism,
that would also have important implications for more U.S. financing in
While Florida lawmakers are bound to fight to keep the embargo in place,
they will increasingly see pressure from business and other moderate
lawmakers, analysts said.
“The level of opposition among most Republicans toward the policy shift
is probably not as defined as it once was, as the perceived threat by
Cuba toward the U.S. has faded,” the Eurasia Group, a U.S. analytical
firm, wrote to its subscribers Wednesday. “But those GOP lawmakers
representing the Cuban community will remain implacably opposed to any
move to normalize relations with Cuba as long as the Castro brothers
remain in power.”
Cuban leader Raúl Castro acknowledged that Obama’s hands are tied. But
on Wednesday, he asked the U.S. leader to keep using his executive
powers to chisel away at the embargo.
“I call on the government of the United States to remove the obstacles
that block or restrict the ties between our countries,” he said.
But Congress could do its own pushing back. Besides starving initiatives
of funding, it could also simply complicate things. By reducing the
number of people who approve visits to Cuba, it could create a
bureaucratic backlog, Hufbauer said.
But in some ways, the embargo may already be mortally wounded, said
Peter Schechter, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center
at the Atlantic Council.
“For all practical purposes, what President Obama has done today is end
55 years of sanction policies,” he said. “We can say that we have
arrived at the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime for Cuba.”
Source: Some in congress balk as White House plows ahead with Cuba
policy | The Miami Herald –