What Does President Obama’s New Cuba Policy Mean?

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Washington, DC – Wednesday morning (December 17), USAID contractor Alan Gross boarded a Washington-bound plane upon his release from Cuban prison on humanitarian grounds.

This news was already groundbreaking—but what would unfold in the following hours was even more so.

At noon the same day, President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro each addressed the press in their respective countries, setting out a new course for US-Cuba ties for the first time in over 50 years.

Everyone’s eyes, it seems, are on Cuba and the Obama Administration. But what does all of this mean?

Q1: What happened?

A1: Wednesday morning, Alan Gross was released from prison in Cuba on humanitarian grounds. Concurrently, Cuba released a US intelligence asset held on the island for nearly two decades in exchange for the three remaining members of the Cuban Five jailed here in the United States since their arrests and convictions as Cuban intelligence agents in 1998.

In his remarks Wednesday afternoon, President Obama explained this development—the culmination of a year-and-a-half of negotiations between US and Cuban officials, held in Canada and supported by Pope Francis.

And he also set out a new US policy toward Cuba—the first time bilateral relations have meaningfully changed in over 50 years. The President framed this change as a renewal of US leadership in the Americas, citing the failure of the “decades of US isolation of Cuba” to “accomplish [the United States’] enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.”

Without a doubt, this is a significant moment and inflection in long-static U.S.-Cuba ties.

Q2: What will change under the new policy?

A2: In his speech, President Obama explained the various elements that comprise his new approach to relations with Cuba—an approach that can be characterized as a movement from isolation to engagement. Those elements include:

Establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961;

Adjusting existing regulations in order to “more effectively empower the Cuban people” through people-to-people contact, support for Cuban civil society, and furthering the free flow of information;

Facilitating the expansion of the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba already permitted under existing US law;

Easing restrictions on remittances to Cuba—both raising quarterly remittance limits and eliminating the need for specific licensing;

Authorizing expanding commercial opportunities—both exports and imports—in limited sectors, with the goal of empowering the “nascent Cuban private sector”;

Facilitating authorized transactions between the two countries to improve the speed, efficiency, and oversight of authorized payments between the two countries;

Initiating new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications through the authorized sale of certain consumer communications equipment and support for the necessary infrastructure development in Cuba;

Updating the application of US sanctions on Cuba in third countries;

Working to resolve the unresolved maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mexico through the initiation of a trilateral dialogue among Cuba, Mexico, and the United States;

Reviewing Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (a designation held since 1982) through the US Department of State—a key factor in further reforming US policies; and,

Addressing Cuba’s participation in the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama through President Obama’s attendance and his prioritization of democracy and human rights as key themes of the Summit.

All in all, this represents a dramatic departure from the previous decades of US policy.

It’s important to note, too, what hasn’t changed.

In his remarks, the President was careful to highlight that the underpinning goals of the previous decades of US policy remain the same: the US government’s “unwavering commitment to democracy, human rights, and civil society.” So while the method of achieving those goals is, under President Obama’s new policies, dramatically altered, the goals themselves remain the same.

Q3: What does this new policy mean for the bilateral relationship?

A3: President Obama’s announcement demonstrates that he is willing to do all that is within his power to bring about meaningful change to the US-Cuba relationship. This isn’t to be taken lightly—and he’s already made that clear, given the scope of the changes he introduced.

But it’s important to remember that however unprecedented these changes may be in the context of the previous 50 years of the bilateral relationship, there is plenty the President can’t do on his own. The embargo—long the cornerstone of US policy toward Cuba—remains in place. While President Obama’s actions make it seem more in-reach than ever before, only Congress can lift the embargo.

And though many have cheered these developments, they remain deeply controversial in Congress, which appears unlikely to lift the embargo in the short term.

Some of President Obama’s proposed changes—such as appointing a US ambassador to Cuba and opening an embassy in Havana—rely on Congress, as well. And in his statement earlier today, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), incoming chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, challenged the President’s efforts, implying that Congress would be unlikely to confirm nominees and appropriate the needed funding to give the plan teeth.

The President, then, has gone nearly as far as he can. But he’s built up momentum for change in a decades-long policy than many have treated as a foregone conclusion, proving that it is anything but.

Bilaterally, that has the potential to open a lot of doors. The potential for change implies a fundamental change in the assumptions that underpin the bilateral relationship. And given the appearance that Cuban leadership is on board with this new set of changes—and provided they work to maintain the goodwill this has generated—the bilateral relationship could be headed for uncharted territory.

Q4: What do these changes mean for US relations in the Western Hemisphere?

A4: The announcements will likely impact U.S. relations in the rest of the Americas, as well.

Long seen as a sticking point by even the United States’ friends and allies in the region, President Obama’s willingness to modify policy toward Cuba may send the message that the United States is forward-looking, rather than stuck in decreasingly relevant Cold War outlooks and policies.

And these developments will be particularly important for Venezuela, the self-styled nemesis to the United States in Latin America and a country that has promoted its role as the co-chair of Latin American leftist politics, alongside Cuba, for the past 15 years.

Cuba and Venezuela are friends and allies—and they’re deeply interdependent. Venezuelan oil supports the Cuban economy, even as Cuban political leadership has helped to legitimize the presidencies of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro.

Venezuela is in a moment of crisis. With political protests across the country since February of last year, inflation over 60%, foreign reserves at an 11-year low, and its oil-dependent economy grinding to a halt as oil prices plummeted in recent months, Venezuela is barely keeping its head above water.

And in the midst of this crisis, the country’s closest ally has begun a new chapter in its relationship with Venezuela’s greatest enemy. Despite President Maduro’s lauding of these developments as a blow to US imperialism, in reality, Venezuela is the biggest loser as the United States and Cuba move closer together.

Conclusion: However this plays out, Wednesday marked an important shift in US-Cuba relations from isolation to engagement. As this process goes forward, the US and Cuba together will be crafting a bilateral policy that seeks to leave behind the bygone Cold War mindset.

The island’s economic security, in the face of Venezuela’s declining stability, could benefit from the President’s reforms.

The exchange of prisoners, the reestablishment of official diplomatic ties, the President’s commitment to attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama this April, the loosening of existing restrictions—these are all positive changes for the United States in a region that opposed US policy toward Cuba—and whose claims of neglect by the Obama Administration for now appear forgotten.

With this move, the United States has the opportunity to directly further its long-held objectives of promoting democracy and human rights on the island—goals the previous policy had failed to achieve.

This move also could serve to disorient Latin America’s political left, whose narrative depends heavily on anti-US sentiment. Where does renewed cooperation between the US and Cuba leave a Cuba-led left that traditionally vilifies the United States?

Though the embargo still looms large, and the opposition to this decision is not likely to go quietly, President Obama has changed the game. He had yet to make his mark on US relations in Latin America, with modest interest and content compared to his three predecessors.

By making measurable change on an issue long-touted as a priority for his Administration—one overwhelmingly popular in the Americas and in the United States’s interests—the President has gone far in crafting a meaningful legacy for his presidency in the Americas.

Jillian Rafferty, program coordinator and research assistant, with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Carl Meacham
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Carl Meacham is director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), Americas Program. He joined CSIS from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC)

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