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Obama’s final foreign policy adventure

The US president’s historic opening up to Cuba holds a chance for America to update its Cold War-era Cuban policy

analysis Updated: Mar 21, 2016 22:30 IST
Obama in Cuba,Cuban thaw,US-Cuba relations
US President Barack Obama became the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba. (AFP Photo)

United States President Barack Obama has been cautious while pursuing his foreign policy goals, but has been uncharacteristically adventurous on his historic opening up to Cuba. At the beginning of his presidency in 2008, few would have imagined that Obama could become the first sitting American president to visit Cuba in 88 years, after re-establishing diplomatic relations — severed in 1961 — and reopening the US embassy in Havana.

The truth is that after decades of hostility, particularly after the end of the Cold War, and the demise of the Soviet-Communist state, the US policy towards Cuba — based on comprehensive economic sanctions and isolation — was looking outdated while poisoning American ties with Latin American countries.

Under a series of laws, the sanctions were strengthened and widened under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Trading with the Enemy Act in March 1962, Cuban Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, among others.

Looking to burnish an enduring presidential legacy, Obama has taken measures to ease the embargo on travel, commerce, remittances, trade, financial services and free flow of information to Cuba while Havana was removed from the list of designated terrorist states on May 29, 2015.

But Obama has acknowledged that he does not have the authority to lift the crippling sanctions because they remain codified in legislation, with only Republican-controlled Congress empowered to remove them.

In the present context, it would be extremely difficult for the Obama administration to meet the legal requirement to certify that “a democratically elected government” is in power in Cuba or that it has held “free and fair elections” and “permits opposition parties to participate”, respects “basic civil liberties and human rights of its citizens” and “is moving toward a free market economy”.

Without such a presidential determination, only a Congressional action could amend or repeal the LIBERTAD Act and other embargo-related statutes.

Obama’s audacious gamble has put president Raul Castro under pressure to make matching reforms. While it is unrealistic for the Cuban leader to dismantle the regime overnight and establish Western-style democracy, the younger brother of legendary Communist leader, Fidel Castro has started to update socialism.

But will the ‘Cold warriors’ on Capitol Hill and the Cuban-American expatriates based in Florida take the cue from recent developments?

Unfortunately, the Cuban-Americans — just 2 million or 0.6% of the US population — enjoy disproportionate political clout, mainly due to their concentration in Florida, only 150 km from the Cuban coast.

On March 15, two of the four Republican White House hopefuls were Cuban-Americans and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have been critical of Obama’s opening up to Cuba, arguing that the president has conceded too much without reciprocal concessions on human rights or multi-party democracy in Cuba.

Following months of a bitter and divisive election campaign, Republican and Democratic leaders may hate to be seen agreeing on anything in the next few years. The fear, ironically, is that both the parties could just agree to keep the outdated Cold War-era Cuban policy frozen in time.

First Published: Mar 21, 2016 22:29 IST