In a few moments, President Obama will speak to reporters about the big change in U.S. policy towards Cuba that we learned about this morning. Here’s a little bit of what we know so far:
Cuba has freed American contractor Alan Gross after five years in custody as part of a prisoner swap that could herald sweeping changes in U.S. policies toward the island after decades of sanctions, a senior Obama administration official and news reports said.
President Obama was expected to make a statement on Cuba at noon. At the same time, Cuban President Raul Castro was scheduled to address his nation about relations with the United States, Cuban state television reported.
Any moves to close the rifts would mark a significant moment in Western Hemisphere politics.
This came at the end of a series of negotiations that involved the help of the Canadian government, a plea by Pope Francis to resolve Gross’ case, and a lengthy phone call yesterday between President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro, which according to the White House was the first such conversation since the Cuban revolution.
For decades, our policy toward Cuba has been somewhere between a tragedy and a farce. The embargo of the island began in 1960, two years after Fidel Castro and his communist rebels overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Ever since, presidential candidates have trooped down to south Florida to tell the Cuban emigre community that if they were elected, they’d really stick it to Castro and eventually he would fall (Bill Clinton memorably promised in 1992 to “bring the hammer down” on Castro).
But Castro didn’t fall (though he did step aside because of ill health and pass control of the government to his brother Raul). Now 54 years old, the embargo is probably the longest-lasting failure in the history of American foreign policy. It still has its advocates, few more vocal than Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (today Menendez released an angry statement condemning the deal to release Gross as a gift to the Cuban regime). Republican Senator Marco Rubio also lashed out at the news, calling it “part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established.”
But in recent years political space has opened up for politicians from both parties to admit that the embargo is accomplishing nothing. The reason is the simple passage of time. That first generation of Cuban immigrants who are so fiercely anti-Castro and anti-communist — and as a consequence, fiercely loyal to the Republican party — has been growing old and dying. Their children and grandchildren don’t share their partisan loyalties or their singular focus on maintaining the embargo. All the talk of “keeping the pressure” on the Castro brothers sounds a little ridiculous to many of them — if 54 years of pressure hasn’t worked, why would the 55th or 56th year finally do the trick?
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, his position was that the embargo should be gradually eased, and early in his term he did loosen restrictions on travel and the transfer of money from Cuban-Americans to relatives on the island. In 2012, Obama narrowly lost Cubans in Florida — doing better than any Democrat had in decades — and a Cuban-American is now as likely to be a Democrat as a Republican (Mitt Romney supported maintaining the embargo, just as Hillary Clinton and John McCain did in 2008).
So what happens now? The White House released a statement today that said this:
It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. At times, longstanding U.S. policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba. Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect – today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party.
We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state. With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help.
While the embargo isn’t being lifted completely, the changes come down to expanding the cracks that have already been opened. There will be more travel permitted, remittances of greater value permitted, and more (though still limited) trade permitted. That’s in addition to the opening of negotiations on the restoration of diplomatic relations.
This is a change that everyone has seen coming, and most Americans have favored for some time. So it’ll be interesting to see how loudly Republicans in Congress object on an issue that would put them at odds with public opinion and make them look hidebound and out of touch.
Either way, it turns out that President Obama can get some things accomplished even with a hostile Congress.