Even before President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba on Wednesday, his congressional opponents were vowing to undermine any attempt at rapprochement.
With Republicans in control of the House and Senate next year, opposition to reforms could be stiff, but it’s unclear how much Congress can push back against the White House.
Congress does control the purse strings and might use its power to deny funding for an embassy in Havana, or withhold financing from sections of the State Department tasked with normalizing relations with the island.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for one, said he would use his role as the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee to block the reforms, calling them a “a terrible setback for the hopes of all oppressed people around the globe.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, went further and said Obama may have broken several laws by acting unilaterally, including the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, and the Trading with the Enemy Act.
“The White House attempts to normalize relationships with Cuba without the approval of Congress may be in direct violation of Helms-Burton that specifically states that all political prisoners must be released and free and fair elections must be held before establishing a diplomatic relationship,” she said in a statement. “This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms and disregard democratic principles.”
Senior administration officials insist that Obama was well within his rights to make the reforms via executive decree.
Along with seeking full diplomatic ties, the changes will expand the types of goods that can be exported to the island — including material for residential construction, agricultural machinery and much-needed telecommunications equipment. In addition, U.S. companies will be allowed to do business with Cuban companies not on the island; remittances to Cuba will be increased from $500 to $2,000 per quarter; and financial institutions will be allowed to set up branches in Cuba.
But there are still barriers in place. Despite increasing commercial ties, trade with state enterprises, for example, remains prohibited. And while there are 12 broad categories of people who can now legally visit the island, U.S. law prohibits general tourism.
“We are basically doing everything we can within the statutory limitations to facilitate travel to Cuba,” said a senior administration official who was speaking on background.
For the most part, Obama has gone about as far as he can before bumping into the restrictions imposed by the Helms Burton embargo law, said Gary Clyde Hufbauer with the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the co-author of the book Economic Normalization with Cuba: A Roadmap for U.S. Policymakers.
Obama’s actions would likely be limited to marginal changes, like further relaxing travel restrictions or raising the $160 per-diem that business executives are restricted to on the island. He could also direct the FAA to begin certifying Cuban planes to ease travel back and forth.
“But to be honest, he may be near the end of his string” on potential reforms, Hufbauer said.
“If Obama really wanted to be gutsy, he could argue that Helms-Burton is an unconstitutional infringement on presidential power,” he said. “But that would be a poke in the eye to Congress.”
The Helms-Burton legal framework continues to be a roadblock for U.S.-Cuba relations, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
“There continue to be limits of large-scale trade and investment. But Obama has ample authority to bypass restrictions when it would serve U.S. interests,” he said in an email from Cuba. “It is reasonable to expect more trade, more communication and more cooperation between the two countries. Short of repealing the embargo legislation, if the U.S. decides to remove Cuba from the list of states that support terrorism, that would also have important implications for more U.S. financing in Cuba.”
While Florida lawmakers are bound to fight to keep the embargo in place, they will increasingly see pressure from business and other moderate lawmakers, analysts said.
“The level of opposition among most Republicans toward the policy shift is probably not as defined as it once was, as the perceived threat by Cuba toward the U.S. has faded,” the Eurasia Group, a U.S. analytical firm, wrote to its subscribers Wednesday. “But those GOP lawmakers representing the Cuban community will remain implacably opposed to any move to normalize relations with Cuba as long as the Castro brothers remain in power.”
Cuban leader Raúl Castro acknowledged that Obama’s hands are tied. But on Wednesday, he asked the U.S. leader to keep using his executive powers to chisel away at the embargo.
“I call on the government of the United States to remove the obstacles that block or restrict the ties between our countries,” he said.
But Congress could do its own pushing back. Besides starving initiatives of funding, it could also simply complicate things. By reducing the number of people who approve visits to Cuba, it could create a bureaucratic backlog, Hufbauer said.
But in some ways, the embargo may already be mortally wounded, said Peter Schechter, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.
“For all practical purposes, what President Obama has done today is end 55 years of sanction policies,” he said. “We can say that we have arrived at the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime for Cuba.”