President Obama’s opening to Cuba is irreversible and remaining legislative restrictions on relations between the two countries — including a U.S. travel ban and trade embargo — are likely to be lifted by Congress “sooner than people think,” senior White House official Ben Rhodes said Thursday.
“The fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen,” Rhodes said. “Frankly, whatever the political realities in either country, for somebody to try to turn this off, they would have to be working against the overwhelming desires of their own people.
“That ship has sailed,” he said.
Rhodes, who, as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, spearheaded 18 months of secret talks that led to restored relations, spoke before a largely sympathetic audience at a forum on “cultural diplomacy” with Cuba at the Meridian International Center.
Numerous bipartisan bills have been introduced in Congress to lift the ban on tourist travel to Cuba, financial restrictions and the overall trade embargo that remain despite the normalization Obama announced in December 2014. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored nearly a year ago.
Action on most of the legislation has been blocked. The Senate’s financial services bill in the Appropriations Committee, set for a vote next week, is likely to pass, judging from bipartisan support that has been voiced. It includes measures lifting the travel ban and removing restrictions on financing for U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. But the House version of the appropriations bill, rather than easing restrictions, would impose new ones.
A strong majority of the American public, according to a wide range of opinion polls, favored restoring relations long before it happened. Recent surveys indicate about 60 percent support lifting the embargo and travel restrictions.
Among Cuban American lawmakers who have opposed restoring relations are Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), both of whom said during their campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination that they would reverse Obama’s actions.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, supports the policy; Donald Trump, on the Republican side, has said he is “fine” with normalizing relations with Cuba, although he said he would have forged “a better deal” than Obama.
Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), one of 22 members of both parties who belong to a House working group on the issue, told the Meridian House audience that “73 percent of Americans are in favor of lifting the embargo. It’s no longer a question of if, but when.”
Emmer acknowledged that there are “many thoughtful and patriotic members whose families have suffered greatly” under Cuba’s repressive communist government over the years. But, he said “the world is changing, and so is Cuba.”
Obama has used his executive authority to implement all of the Cuba actions he has taken thus far. But only Congress can repeal the embargo and other sanctions adopted through legislation over the past half-century.
Thursday’s conference included a number of U.S. business and cultural leaders who have taken advantage of the opening and are pressing to widen it. Some were critical of the slowness with which the Cuban government has opened its own doors to economic reforms that would allow greater participation there.
Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, said that Cuba’s lengthy isolation has held back development of the arts there and that defections have caused a significant “brain drain” — including 15 Cuban dancers he said he has hired in the past 10 years. Now, he said, those dancers can travel back and forth.
Cuba’s National Ballet is considered among the best in the world, and Webre — the son of a Cuban mother and an American father — began some of the first U.S.-Cuban cultural exchanges nearly two decades ago.