If U.S. President-elect Barack Obama wants to begin dismantling Washington’s nearly 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, it appears he will have widespread support for doing so.
Not only have some major foreign policy heavyweights recently called for ending the embargo if, for no other reason, than to create desperately needed goodwill elsewhere in the Americas and beyond.
But major U.S. business groups also appear more enthusiastic than ever for pushing the incoming administration and the most Democratic Congress in some 20 years in that direction, although they concede the process may be more gradual than they would like.
"We support the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba," a dozen such business associations, including the politically potent Business Roundtable, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Retail Federation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote, in a letter addressed to Obama Thursday.
"We recognize that change may not come all at once, but it must start somewhere, and it must begin soon," they added, noting that Washington’s trade embargo and its long-standing efforts to isolate Havana for national security reasons during the Cold War have "far outlasted [their] original purpose."
The letter, which was drafted by Jake Colvin, vice president for Global Trade Issues of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), is the latest in a series of public statements by prominent foreign policy figures and institutions in favor of easing, if not abandoning, Washington’s efforts to isolate Havana.
Last May, a high-level, bipartisan Latin America task force of the influential Council on Foreign Relations issued a 76-page report that, among other things, called for any incoming U.S. administration to repeal the economic and travel sanctions Washington has imposed against Cuba over the past 15 years and engage Havana on a range of issues of mutual concern with a view to ending the embargo and normalizing ties.
And just two weeks ago, an inter-American commission sponsored by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, from which the new administration is expected to recruit key policymakers, and co-chaired by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former U.S. UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering went further yet.
In addition to easing the embargo and directly engaging the government of President Raul Castro, it urged that Cuba immediately be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, end restrictions on humanitarian aid there, reintegrate Cuba into regional and global economic and political organizations, and lift all travel restrictions on the island.
The report noted that Washington’s decades-long hostility toward Havana had "disproportionately dominated U.S. policy toward the LAC region for years [and] have hindered Washington’s ability to work constructively with other countries."
During this year’s presidential campaign, Obama himself had pledged to open talks with the Cuban government without preconditions and to relax the embargo by repealing regulations promulgated by President George W. Bush that limited both travel by Cuban Americans to their homeland and their ability to send remittances to their families there.
Those measures were the least popular of a series of measures taken by Bush since 2003 to tighten the embargo after Congress and former President Bill Clinton had loosened it the late 1990s to the extent of permitting sales of food and medicine to the island.
Beyond repealing the Cuban American measures, however, Obama said he would maintain the embargo, insisting that it provided "leverage" to encourage the Castro regime to adopt political reforms, a precondition "to begin normalizing relations." Still, his position was more forthcoming than that of either Sen. John McCain or his Democratic rival and now his secretary of state-designate Sen. Hillary Clinton, both of whom were eager to court the hardliners in the Cuban-American community in Florida, a key swing state.
In the event, Obama won Florida in the general election, suggesting that the vaunted political clout wielded by die-hard anti-Castro forces there may at last be on the wane and that the president-elect may have more room for maneuver than he might have expected.
"The demographics [in Florida] have changed," noted Colvin, who just released a 42-page report, "The Case for a New Cuba Policy," in his capacity as a fellow with the New Ideas Fund. "Republicans are now in the minority among Hispanics in Florida, and non-Cuban Hispanics don’t feel the same way about the embargo."
Colvin and other experts expect that Obama will follow through on his pledges after his Jan. 20 inauguration to immediately lift restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances and to begin bilateral talks on a number of issues, including migration and cooperation on drug-trafficking and the environment.
But he and the business groups hope he will go further. "These are excellent first steps," the letter states, "but we urge you to also commit to a more comprehensive examination of U.S. policy."
William LeoGrande, a veteran Cuba specialist who is dean of he School of Government at American University here, believes Obama could with little political cost repeal other measures taken by Bush, particularly those that restricted "purposeful" travel as opposed to tourism, which is banned by law and thus requires congressional action by U.S. citizens to Cuba.
Lifting Bush’s restrictions on trade specifically, that Cuba pay in cash for all U.S. exports of food and medicine before they leave U.S. ports could also be repealed without much cost.
In its letter, the business associations calls for Obama to "immediately remove travel restrictions and allow Americans to act as ambassadors of freedom and American values to Cuba," ease credit requirements on trade in food and medicine, and "exempt agricultural machinery, heavy equipment, and other exports from the embargo which could provide the goods and technology needed to rebuild from recent storms" that have devastated the island.
In his new report, Colvin argues that Obama actually enjoys very broad discretion to lift many elements of the embargo just by issuing new regulations or modifying old ones.
"The idea that Congress has limited the president through legislation such as [the 1996] Helms-Burton [Act] is largely a myth," according to the report, which lays out a blueprint for what kinds of initiatives Obama could take on his own, particularly through the licensing authority of the Treasury Department, which determines much of what can and cannot be done between U.S. businesses and individuals vis-à-vis Cuba.
"Given all the other things that Obama has on his plate, he probably won’t want to wage a big political battle in Congress to end the embargo," said LeoGrande. "It would be much easier to dismantle the commercial embargo little by little, piece by piece, in sectors beyond food and medicine."
He noted that Bush himself exempted cell phones and computers from the embargo after Castro legalized their ownership earlier this year. Bush also granted licenses to U.S. pharmaceutical companies to import Cuban biomedical products to test them. These can be used by Obama as precedents.
For more general action, especially in Congress, "the question is whether these business associations are willing to really flex their political muscle on Capitol Hill and at the White House to get this done," he added, noting that they have been reluctant to do so until now knowing that Bush would oppose them.
But Colvin, who described the letter as a "shot across the bow" for Obama and Congress, said the companies are "more optimistic" about prospects with Bush’s departure. "Going into next year, we’re going to take the temperature of our companies on this and then start setting up some meetings on the Hill and see where we go."
(Inter Press Service)