President Obama’s Visit to Cuba

President Obama announces plans to visit Cuba in March 2016

analysis by Steve Anchell

To understand the significance of what is happening in U.S./Cuba relations it is important to know one thing: no President of the U.S. can unilaterally lift the embargo. Under the provisions of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act only an act of Congress can lift the embargo.

President Obama can relax travel restrictions, he can reopen diplomatic relations, and his administration can grant trading rights and privileges to U.S. companies on a one-to-one basis. But as long as the embargo is in place the next U.S. President can revoke any and all of these.

This has already occurred. President Bill Clinton made it possible for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba under a variety of easily obtainable visas from the U.S. Treasury Department. These included humanitarian, religious, educational, press, and research. In January 2004 President George W. Bush revoked all except press, humanitarian and religious travel. When Obama established the People-to-People (P2P) license, he was simply reinstating Clinton’s travel agreement.

In other words, as long as there is an embargo the next President, be it Ted Cruz or Hilary Clinton, could decide to: close the embassy; restrict travel; ratchet down the embargo. So even though the Treasury Department has given Horace Clemmons and Saul Berenthal permission to build a tractor factory in Cuba, the next President could order the permission revoked.

What this means to a citizen of the U.S., is that as long as the embargo is in place they cannot legally do business of with Cuba except within a narrowly defined area that requires case-by-case permission. In other words, should a U.S. citizen wish to open a hotel they could only do so having convinced the current President to direct the U.S. Treasury Department to grant them extraordinary permission. Once that was obtained they would also need to negotiate an agreement with the Cuban government. And even then they would run the risk of either side revoking that agreement.

And as long as the embargo is in place the Cuban government could seize the American built tractor factory or hotel should they decide that negotiations with the U.S. had turned unfavorable. They would do this because the Cuban elite, led not only by Raul Castro but by the countries political hard-liners and wealthy, is still uncertain whether a normalization of relations is in their best interests.

However, it is unlikely that President Obama’s efforts will be wasted. The majority of Cuban Americans, particularly among the younger generation, have become aware that the embargo is not working. And while the slowly dwindling old guard and their vociferous mouthpieces, such as Marco Rubio and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, will howl, if any Democrat is elected with a majority in Congress the embargo will be lifted by their third year in office. Even without a majority it is unlikely  a Democratic President will undo what their predecessor has accomplished, especially in the absence of wide-spread opposition from Cuban Americans.

If a Republican is elected with a Republican majority, Congress will lift the embargo within their first year in office. They will do this in order to establish their new President as an international world leader who could accomplish what Obama could not.

President Obama's Visit to Cuba

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