Why real change in Cuba won’t come easy or fast
By WILLIAM M. LEOGRANDE Commentary Opinion Cuba Caribbean Asia Politics
and Government International Sanctions
Don’t expect things to change overnight with Cuba: How the next chapter
in U.S.-Cuba relations could unfold
Repealing the Helms-Burton Act will be far tougher than reaching
agreement with Havana
The historic agreement between Presidents Obama and Raul Castro has
opened what Obama calls “a new chapter” in relations between the United
States and Cuba, but we are still on the first page. The rest of the
chapter remains to be written. What comes next?
No one should expect things to change overnight. It took six years after
President Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China to reestablish normal
diplomatic relations, and it was 15 more before Washington granted China
most-favored-nation trade status.
Progress with Cuba will come faster, but key steps require congressional
consent. The core of the U.S. economic embargo remains in place. Most
U.S. exports are still prohibited, and Cuba cannot export anything to
the United States, which limits Havana’s ability to earn the hard
currency needed to realize the full potential of bilateral trade. Obama
promised to engage with Congress to lift the embargo, but trade
sanctions were written into law by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. With
Republican majorities in both houses of Congress attacking Obama’s
foreign policy, repealing Helms-Burton will be far tougher than reaching
agreement with Havana.
Even if Obama recovers his executive authority to negotiate the end of
the embargo, Washington will seek compensation for nationalized U.S.
property, and Cuba will seek compensation for damage done by the CIA’s
secret war and half a century of economic sanctions.
At Obama’s direction, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is reviewing
Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of
terrorism. He will almost certainly conclude that Cuba should be
removed, because there is no factual basis for its designation. But this
requires notification of Congress, giving Republican critics an
opportunity to try to prevent Cuba’s removal.
Leading the Republican chorus against the new Cuba policy is Sen. Marco
Rubio of Florida, who has sworn to block confirmation of Obama’s
yet-to-be named nominee as U.S. ambassador to Havana. Rubio’s membership
on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — along with that of Sen. Bob
Menendez (D-N.J.), another Cuban American critic of Obama’s policy —
makes quick confirmation highly unlikely. Rubio and Menendez can keep
the nomination bottled up in committee, but they cannot prevent Obama
from reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Article 2 of
the Constitution vests that power exclusively with the president.
Republicans are also threatening to block Obama’s policy by attaching
Cuba amendments to must-pass appropriations bills. That strategy won’t
become available for almost a year, however, when the next
appropriations bills come up. By then, the new relationship with Cuba
may be so well established that even Republicans would be loath to turn
back the clock.
While debate over Cuba rages on Capitol Hill, Washington and Havana will
continue their dialogue, taking up issues that the recent agreement did
not resolve. The U.S. continues to fund covert “democracy promotion”
programs in Cuba to stimulate opposition — programs that led to the
arrest of Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development
subcontractor recently released by Cuba after being imprisoned for five
years. In his speech, Obama signaled an end to U.S. efforts to
destabilize the Cuban government, saying, “It does not serve America’s
interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”
But senior U.S. officials are also saying that the democracy programs
“are not going away.” How will they be refocused in the new era of
The U.S. still spends millions annually broadcasting TV and Radio Marti
to Cuba, even though the television signal is effectively jammed and the
radio has a diminishing audience. Cuba says the broadcasts violate its
sovereignty and years ago offered to carry PBS and CNN on domestic
television if TV and Radio Marti were halted. Could a similar deal be
While Washington and Havana are cooperating on the fight against Ebola,
the U.S. maintains a program that offers Cuban health workers abroad a
fast track to U.S. residency if they defect. Disagreement over this
program doomed U.S.-Cuban cooperation on rebuilding Haiti’s healthcare
system after the 2010 earthquake. Eliminating it will be on the Cuban
agenda for future talks about deepening cooperation in response to
global health emergencies.
Finally, the last agenda item will be Guantanamo. Cuba claims it as
sovereign territory and wants the United States out. Washington insists
on the validity of the 1934 treaty leasing the base to the U.S.
The litany of obstacles to be overcome before U.S.-Cuban relations are
fully normalized should not detract from the enormity of the steps taken
by Obama and Castro. They replaced a Cold War framework of animosity
with a 21st century policy of engagement and cooperation. This new
chapter provides the means to manage issues where interests conflict,
and to reach accord on issues where interests coincide. A series of such
agreements should quickly follow — on counter-narcotics, Coast Guard
search and rescue, disaster preparedness and response, and law
enforcement cooperation against human trafficking.
In April at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama, the two
presidents will continue their dialogue face to face and take the next
steps on the road to reconciliation. It is a long road, rife with curves
and potholes that may slow progress and occasionally cause reversals.
But finally, after 55 years of antagonism, the journey has begun.
William M. LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University
and author with Peter Kornbluh of the recent book “Back Channel to Cuba:
The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”
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Source: What’s next on Cuba? – LA Times –