Reversing a vestigial Cold War-era policy, President Obama has begun to take down the diplomatic wall between Cuba and the U.S.
Both countries are dusting off their mutual embassies (hopefully with the help of an IT person), and have exchanged a handful of captives convicted of espionage in either country — one American and three Cubans. Cuba has also released American Alan Gross, who according to CNN was detained in 2009 "after traveling under a program under the U.S. Agency for International Development to deliver satellite phones and other communications equipment to the island's small Jewish population."
The president announced the loosening of travel restrictions to the country and said Americans will be able to use credit and debit cards there, though tourism will not likely happen yet. He said the U.S. and Cuba will now be able to directly communicate electronically, and companies will be able to sell devices enabling individuals to connect. The limit on the amount of money that can be sent to the country will also increase.
Obama said the renewed openness with Cuba comes largely out of concern for the people who live there, who, despite being 200 miles from Miami, are largely cut off from the rest of the world and have been since 1961.
"These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked," he said. "It's time for a new approach."
The key thing that won't be changing is the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which Congress would have to vote to undo.
"The embargo that's been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation," Obama said. "As these changes unfold I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo."
Polls show most Americans would be in support of such a measure. But given the current gridlock and the incoming Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, such a vote is obviously unlikely.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whose parents are Cuban emigres, wrote that the president's work with Cuban President Raul Castro to ease the two countries' strained relations is "just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost."
From Rubio's column:
The president’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable. Cuba’s record is clear. Just as when President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Castro family still controls the country, the economy and all levers of power. This administration’s attempts to loosen restrictions on travel in recent years have only served to benefit the regime.
While business interests seeking to line their pockets, aided by the editorial page of The New York Times, have begun a significant campaign to paper over the facts about the regime in Havana, the reality is clear. Cuba, like Syria, Iran, and Sudan, remains a state sponsor of terrorism. It continues to actively work with regimes like North Korea to illegally traffic weapons in our hemisphere in violation of several United Nations Security Council resolutions.
It colludes with America’s enemies, near and far, to threaten us and everything we hold dear.
As the incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western hemisphere subcommittee, he said he'd do everything in his power to block the changes.
Obama defended his actions, saying the U.S.'s 50-year-old Cuba policy isn't working for anyone.
"To those who oppose the steps I'm announcing today, let me say I respect your passion, and share your commitment to liberty and democracy," he said. "The question is, how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe that we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover it does not serve America's interests or the Cuban people to try to push Cuba toward collapse."
Tampa area Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Democrat who has long called for the U.S. to ease its relations with Cuba, championed the news, calling today a "historic day in US-Cuban relations."
From her written statement:
"Tampa Bay area families and businesses played an important role in the normalization of relations with Cuba announced today. For years, I have advocated engaging, modernizing diplomatic relations and promoting economic reforms in Cuba, especially after traveling there on a fact-finding mission in 2013. President Obama has again answered the calls for change from this community. Thanks to the President, the State of Florida and the Tampa Bay area can seize the opportunity to lead on engagement and encourage human rights and economic reforms in Cuba,” U.S. Rep. Castor said. “As Americans, we fought two wars with Germany, experienced a terrible conflict with Vietnam and have been able to move forward each time based on concerns for the people of those countries. It is long past time that we do the same for the people of Cuba.”
The Tampa Bay Times writes that the eased rules could have strong implications for Tampa Bay, namely the port and the city's small cigar industry. Cuban Americans have been traveling back and forth to the country from Tampa International Airport since 2011.