In perhaps his boldest foreign policy move during his presidency, Barack Obama Wednesday announced that he intends to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba.
While the president noted that he lacked the authority to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo against Havana, he issued directives that will permit more American citizens to travel there and third-country subsidiaries of US companies to engage in commerce. Other measures include the launching a review of whether Havana should remain on the US list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” The president also said he looked forward to engaging Congress in “an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”
“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” said Obama in a nationally televised announcement.
“Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”
The announcement, which was preceded by a secret, 45-minute telephone conversation Tuesday morning between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, drew both praise from those who have long argued that Washington’s pursuit of Cuba’s isolation has been a total failure and bitter denunciations from right-wing Republicans. Some of them vowed, among other things, to oppose any effort to lift the embargo, open the US embassy in Havana, or confirm a US ambassador to serve there. (Washington has had an Interest Section in the Cuban capital since 1977.)
“Today’s announcement initiating a dramatic change in US policy is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all costs,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of a number of fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American lawmakers and a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
“I intend to use my role as incoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee to make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuba people’s expense,” he said in a statement. “Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office.”
The outgoing Democratic chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, also decried Obama’s announcement. “The United States has just thrown the Cuban regime an economic lifeline,” he said.
“With the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, Cuba is losing its main benefactor, but will now receive the support of the United States, the greatest democracy in the world,” said Menendez, who is also Cuban-American.
But other lawmakers hailed the announcement.
Today President Obama and President Raul Castro made history,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a senior Democrat and one of three lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who escorted Alan Gross, a US Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor, from Havana Wednesday morning as part of a larger prisoner and spy swap that precipitated the announcement.
“Those who cling to a failed policy (and) …may oppose the President’s actions have nothing to offer but more of the same. That would serve neither the interests of the United States and its people, nor of the Cuban people,” Leahy said. “It is time for a change.”
Other analysts also lauded Obama’s Wednesday’s developments, comparing them to historic breakthroughs with major foreign policy consequences.
“Obama has chosen to change the entire framework of the relationship, as (former President Richard) Nixon did when he travelled to China,” said William LeoGrande, a veteran Cuba scholar at American University, in an email from Havana. “Many issues remain to be resolved, but the new direction of US policy is clear.”
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based hemispheric think tank that has long urged Washington to normalize ties with Havana, told IPS the regional implications would likely be very positive.
“Obama’s decision will be cheered and applauded throughout Latin America,” he said.