The world has come a long way since the chant during the Cold War, “Cuba Sí, Yankee No.” Now it could be better written and translated into English as “Cuba Maybe, Yankee Maybe.” But President Obama has picked yet another fight.
Sidestepping Congress as with immigration policy and modifications to Obamacare, the president has used the element of surprise to begin restoration of relations with Cuba, a nation treated as a pariah for over fifty years. As that country has been designated as a supporter of terrorism by the Department of State, it would have been wiser to allow Congress to vet the wisdom of restoring relations with Cuba — an ally of Russia and previously the Soviet Union for decades.
Still reeling from a humiliating defeat of his party in the polls and the capture of the Senate by Republicans, the president is trying to reassert himself and construct an agenda that he thinks he can control. He has certainly caught the opposition off balance. Like immigration, the White House may try to position this as an effort to economically benefit the Latino population, although Cuban-Americans are comparatively affluent with an emphasis on the professions.
Senator Marco Rubio, who will be the new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on foreign relations in the Western hemisphere, has already vowed to oppose the President’s efforts and block funding for an embassy, impede an ambassadorial appointment, and oppose lifting the embargo. He has called the president the “worst negotiator since Carter.” House Speaker John Boehner has also announced his opposition, stating that it encourages state-sponsored terrorism and that improved relations with Cuba should not be addressed until its people have freedom. And Senator Lindsey Graham has affirmed that he will use the power of the purse to block the funding of diplomatic relations.
The issue of presidential authority can be challenged by Congress with the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which allows Congress to strike down an executive action that ends the embargo. Further, it seems difficult for the president to certify that Cuba suddenly merits removal from the list of sponsors of terrorism as designated by the Department of State, much less to be able to assert that Havana will grant its people the prerequisite liberty and freedom of expression that Americans would deem acceptable.
On the other side of the ledger, there are vested interests that would benefit from an end to the embargo on Cuba. Forward-looking Fortune 500 companies should have strategic plans for Cuba, once it opens up. With a population of eleven million, there will be an affinity for American consumer brands, as in other Latin American countries. Cuba also offers cheap labor and a site for business process outsourcing in the same time zone as the East Coast. Retailers and real estate developers in the U.S. and Cuba would be given a major opportunity as well. Tourism will also benefit: it was already chic to visit Cuba but now the cumbersome currency restrictions will be removed, if the president has his way. And there will be rejoicing in the tents of cigar smokers.
Besides Republicans in Congress, perhaps those feeling the most betrayed or shocked by this sudden development are the Cuban-Americans, mainly in Miami, who emigrated after Fidel Castro seized power from Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 revolution, and those families that lost their businesses and wealth.
It all comes down to what the president can do on his own without the support of Congress. Relaxation of currency and banking restrictions and the fostering of tourism would seem within that purview, although full-scale removal of the embargo must be sanctioned by Congress — this controversial maneuver by the Executive Branch will be on the agenda in January. We can be assured of more political drama as a beleaguered yet self-congratulatory White House applauds itself for trying to change history.
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