A Real Cuba Breakthrough Is Tied to Congressional Action


by Brian Alexander

President Obama has announced “a new course on Cuba,” timed to the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross who was imprisoned by the Cuban government since December 2009. Headlines and editorials are suggesting the policy shift is “ushering in a transformational era” and that it “dismantles an artifact of the Cold War”. The president’s new policies and assertion that decades of isolation are “a failed approach,” coupled with the unprecedented phone call between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, suggests a historic shift in tone and possibly a new direction in US-Cuba relations.

However, before we all line up to buy vacation condos in Cuba, the President’s move only partially lifts U.S. sanctions, promises shifts in diplomatic relations and bilateral cooperation, eases only some commercial and travel restrictions, and renews the U.S. commitment to supporting democracy in Cuba. Most important, despite enthusiastic claims that “sanctions are coming to an end,” U.S. law prohibits the president from lifting the embargo. The 1996 Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act (a.k.a. “Helms-Burton” after its sponsors), passed in the wake of the Cuban shoot down of two U.S.-based Brothers to the Rescue airplanes, codified the executive orders that comprised the majority of the embargo and added additional requirements that Cuba must meet for the embargo to end.

While the executive branch still has substantial flexibility, a real end to U.S. isolation of Cuba can only come with Congressional action. And that’s not likely to happen. Given congressional gridlock, divided government, and the fact that embargo supporters occupy key positions in each chamber, it is unlikely that the Republican-lead Congress is likely to follow the president’s lead. Moreover, an ambitious policy proposal, such as ending the decades-old embargo, late in the president’s second term and in the context of divided government is an uphill battle. Already, key House and Senate members of the GOP are denouncing the president’s move. Some may point to the shifting landscape of domestic politics on Cuba among Cuban-Americans and the general public and to evidence of a bipartisan majority in Congress for easing Cuba sanctions. But these facts are not lost on Congressional embargo supporters who will actively try to prevent such votes from occurring. Congressional scholars will detect a context ripe for negative agenda control, based on a combination of majority party leadership and a small number of highly mobilized Representatives and Senators blocking moves to end the embargo.

What’s more, there is a still a long way between a handshake and a phone call and a substantive breakthrough on key sticking points in US-Cuba relations. Issues such as human rights and confiscated U.S. properties remain priorities for the United States and the Cuban posture regarding Venezuela and North Korea, for example, suggest deep divides between the two countries. For his part, Cuban President Raul Castro statement on the breakthrough contained strong preconditions for greater progress, including a call for a full end to “el bloqueo” (the blockade), as the embargo is known in Cuba. If the recent developments suggest a ray of sunshine in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, it is peeking through a sky full of grey clouds.

Moreover, given the history of Cuban responses to US ovations toward Cuba, optimists should be wary that the Cuban government might do something provocative. For example, the Mariel boatlift in 1980, the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down in 1996, the Havana Spring dissident roundup in 2003, and even the jailing of Alan Gross in 2009 all followed moves in the United States toward rapprochement. Will Cuba bite again? If so, Congress will likely be even more intransigent and President Obama, having extended his hand, would not be the first American leader to regret his gesture.

Brian Alexander is a doctoral candidate in political science at George Mason University.  His research is on Congress, parties, and interest groups and his dissertation looks at the utilization of conference committees.  Brian’s professional experience includes work in foreign policy non-profits, political consulting, and federal agencies. His publications include works on reform of the intelligence community and nuclear nonproliferation.

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