The stunning announcements Dec. 17 by Presidents Obama of the U.S. and Raul Castro Ruz of Cuba, about the exchange of prisoners and the upcoming reset of the whole relationship between the two countries creates a new scenario for the Cuba solidarity movement.
The ultra-right in and out of Congress responded with frenzy. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called Obama’s actions “absurd, disgraceful and outrageous.” Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and other leading GOP politicians agreed. An exception was Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has been pushing for an end to the U.S. blockade of Cuba for a while. Rand Paul, the “libertarian” right wing Republican Senator from Kentucky, said engaging with Cuba is “a good idea.”
Most Democratic Party leaders gave at least cautious support to the president’s proposals, including Hillary Clinton and two other people mentioned as possible 2016 presidential candidates, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Exceptions included U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is close to Cuban exile circles in his state and blasted the changes.
Vermont’s independent senator, Bernie Sanders, said Obama’s announcement was “a major step forward toward ending the 55-year cold war with Cuba.”
Evidently, this is going to be an election issue in 2016.
Polling suggests that public opinion will support the reset of the relationship between the two countries. Over the years, public hostility against Cuba has declined, and many are annoyed that the government tells them they can’t travel to Cuba. Many resent the seeming “stranglehold” that the South Florida exiles have over U.S. foreign policy. Lately the good press that Cuba has been getting over its contribution to the fight against the West African Ebola epidemic has been helpful in changing public opinion.
It seems probable that the Obama administration will now work with considerable speed to implement the changes. Obama has stolen a march on the Republican opposition, so it is to his advantage to move as fast as he can so that the the right cannot catch up until it is too late.
Some things can’t be undone. The releasing of the three remaining “Cuban Five” in exchange for two U.S. agents can never be reversed. The anti-Cuba right has said they will block funding for the creation of a new U.S. embassy in Havana, but the building is already there: Its name needs just to be changed from “Interests Section” to “embassy.” They can’t stop Cuba from opening an embassy in Washington D.C. either, except by special legislation which won’t prosper. They can try to pass special legislation forbidding the restoration of full diplomatic relations, but that will face a constitutional challenge.
Obama’s statement about possibly taking Cuba off the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list also enraged the reactionaries, who are not bothered when somebody commits acts of terrorism against Cuba like the blowing up of a Cuban airliner in 1976. Currently, besides Cuba, the only states on that list are Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The removal of Cuba from the list, a long time demand of progressive activists in the United States, would eliminate some trade restrictions. Few think that Cuba actually “sponsors terrorism,” so it’s being on the list has nothing to do with protecting our people. Reagan put Cuba on the list in 1982 in part because of Cuba’s efforts to defend Angola against attacks from the apartheid regime in South Africa. To remove Cuba from this list, all Secretary of State John Kerry has to do is to declare that Cuba is not sponsoring terrorism anywhere, and that Cuba is off the list. The United States has removed other countries from the list in the past without problems. Congress has no say in the matter.
The changes in the rules for travel and most of the other changes Obama announced also not likely to be successfully challenged except by passage of new anti-Cuba legislation, which will be an uphill struggle and will not gain the support of public opinion.
The toughest item will be the passage of new legislation eliminating the blockade entirely. In his speech, Obama said he would ask Congress for this. This means repealing or radically modifying the Toricelli Amendment of 1982 and the Helms-Burton act of 1996, and other things. But now that the Cuban 5 are free forever and the other changes, within the purview of executive power, are underway, the large network of organizations and individuals who have been working for decades to change U.S. Cuba policy will be able to increase their concentration on new goals.
In the past, getting such legislation through Congress has not been possible, to a large extent because it was always opposed by the White House. Now the White House will support it. While the Republican majorities in both Houses present a special problem, it is also the case that there are business interests who want the blockade eliminated. So let’s not be pessimistic about this, while understanding it will take a lot of work.
The immediate task is to defend the Cuba reset program presented by Obama from attacks by the right.
In the New Year, let’s hit the ground running!