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Cuba Thaw – Three Questions for Philip Brenner

Professor Philip Brenner (300x200)

President Barack Obama met alone with President Raúl Castro during the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama -- the latest sign of a thaw between the United States and Cuba after the two leaders announced in December that their countries had agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations. We asked Professor Philip Brenner, an expert on Cuba who was there in December and again in mid-April, for some insights:

Q: President Obama announced on April 14 that the he will remove Cuba from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list. What are the obstacles to that?

A: The United States placed Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1982, mainly because of Cuba’s alleged assistance to insurgent groups fighting in Latin America and its acknowledged aid to Nicaragua, which the United States claimed was supporting El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Cuba announced in 1992 that it had ceased supporting third world insurgencies, and -- with the civil wars in Central America long over -- the rationale that the State Department provided each year for including Cuba on the list had little merit. Indeed, last year’s report essentially provided the president with reasons to remove Cuba from the list.

The statute governing Obama’s announcement required him to notify Congress of the decision, which he did, and then to wait forty-five days before implementing it. Congress essentially has no power to stop the president from removing Cuba from the list, short of attempts on unrelated matters such as blocking nominations or refusing to pass appropriations. Key opponents, such Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), said last week that they had studied the matter and recognized they had no legislative way to stop the president.

While the removal of Cuba from the list will not affect trade relations significantly, it will facilitate Cuba’s ability to engage with international banks on normal transactions. This will likely enable U.S. citizens to use credit cards in Cuba and for a Cuban embassy in the United States to function properly. Cuba’s inability to have a bank account in the United States was an obstacle to the opening of embassies in the two countries.

Q: Cuba is eager to attract foreign investment and bolster its economy. Will the U.S. Congress lift the more than five-decade-old trade embargo against Cuba?

A: The United States tried to undermine the viability of the Cuban government in June 1960 by cutting off the import of Cuban sugar. After the failed 1961 U.S.-organized Bay of Pigs invasion, Congress authorized the president to enact a formal embargo against Cuba, which President John F. Kennedy did in February 1962. Later presidents changed the embargo regulations, sometimes creating more restrictions and twice loosening restrictions. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act codified existing regulations, in effect limiting a president’s discretion to relax embargo rules and requiring that further changes be made only by new law, not a president’s executive order. In 2000, Congress modified Helms-Burton to allow the sale of some food and medicine and travel by some Americans to Cuba.

While Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama have interpreted the 1996 and 2000 acts loosely, especially with respect to travel (Clinton and Obama relaxed travel restrictions and Bush tightened them), they did not claim any authority to open up trade and investment completely without a new law that would lift the embargo. A few members of Congress have sponsored legislation to do just that. But the Republican Party controls both the House and the Senate, and Republican leaders have indicated they will not move forward any legislation that eases the embargo during this Congress, which ends in January 2017.

Q: Two Republican candidates for president -- Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz -- have family ties to Cuba. Do you expect Cuba to be a significant topic in the U.S. presidential campaign?

A: In the six presidential election campaigns from 1992 to 2012, the issue of U.S. relations with Cuba did play an oversized role. Cuban-Americans who still hoped to overthrow the Cuban government and opposed any improvement in relations were concentrated in Florida, which had become a key electoral battleground for presidential aspirants -- in party primaries and the general election.

But demographics in Florida and among Cuban-Americans began to shift in the 21st century. As Latinos from countries other than Cuba gained citizenship, they diluted the influence of Cuban-Americans in Florida. Along with Puerto Ricans, who had populated the state’s I-4 corridor, they tended to view U.S. policy as an obstacle to better relations with the region. Immigrants from Cuba who had arrived since 1980 also tended to favor improved relations with the island, and strongly opposed Bush administration restrictions that limited their travel to one visit every three years for family visits.

In 2008, promising to end travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, Sen. Obama won an unprecedented thirty-five percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida. Having kept his promise, and also enabling Cuban-Americans to send unlimited remittances to their families, he won forty-eight percent of Florida’s Cuban-American vote in 2012. In light of the changing demographics in Florida, the weakening of the Cuban-American lobby, and the momentum generated by Obama’s recent moves, it is unlikely that either Senators Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz will be able to use Cuba effectively as a way to gain support. In fact, if they dwell on Cuba, they may hurt their campaigns by seeming to be both parochial and out of step with a policy favored by a majority of Americans.

Brenner is an editor of A Contemporary Cuba Reader: The Revolution under Raúl Castro. For media requests, please call J. Paul Johnson at 202-885-5943.