Op-Ed: Why real change in Cuba won’t come easy or fast

The historic agreement between Presidents Obama and Raul Castro has opened what Obama calls “a new chapter” in relations between the United States and Cuba, but we are still on the first page. The rest of the chapter remains to be written. What comes next?

No one should expect things to change overnight. It took six years after President Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China to reestablish normal diplomatic relations, and it was 15 more before Washington granted China most-favored-nation trade status.

Progress with Cuba will come faster, but key steps require congressional consent. The core of the U.S. economic embargo remains in place. Most U.S. exports are still prohibited, and Cuba cannot export anything to the United States, which limits Havana’s ability to earn the hard currency needed to realize the full potential of bilateral trade. Obama promised to engage with Congress to lift the embargo, but trade sanctions were written into law by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress attacking Obama’s foreign policy, repealing Helms-Burton will be far tougher than reaching agreement with Havana.

Even if Obama recovers his executive authority to negotiate the end of the embargo, Washington will seek compensation for nationalized U.S. property, and Cuba will seek compensation for damage done by the CIA’s secret war and half a century of economic sanctions.


At Obama’s direction, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is reviewing Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. He will almost certainly conclude that Cuba should be removed, because there is no factual basis for its designation. But this requires notification of Congress, giving Republican critics an opportunity to try to prevent Cuba’s removal.

Leading the Republican chorus against the new Cuba policy is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has sworn to block confirmation of Obama’s yet-to-be named nominee as U.S. ambassador to Havana. Rubio’s membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — along with that of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), another Cuban American critic of Obama’s policy — makes quick confirmation highly unlikely. Rubio and Menendez can keep the nomination bottled up in committee, but they cannot prevent Obama from reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Article 2 of the Constitution vests that power exclusively with the president.

Republicans are also threatening to block Obama’s policy by attaching Cuba amendments to must-pass appropriations bills. That strategy won’t become available for almost a year, however, when the next appropriations bills come up. By then, the new relationship with Cuba may be so well established that even Republicans would be loath to turn back the clock.

While debate over Cuba rages on Capitol Hill, Washington and Havana will continue their dialogue, taking up issues that the recent agreement did not resolve. The U.S. continues to fund covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba to stimulate opposition — programs that led to the arrest of Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor recently released by Cuba after being imprisoned for five years. In his speech, Obama signaled an end to U.S. efforts to destabilize the Cuban government, saying, “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.” But senior U.S. officials are also saying that the democracy programs “are not going away.” How will they be refocused in the new era of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement?

The U.S. still spends millions annually broadcasting TV and Radio Marti to Cuba, even though the television signal is effectively jammed and the radio has a diminishing audience. Cuba says the broadcasts violate its sovereignty and years ago offered to carry PBS and CNN on domestic television if TV and Radio Marti were halted. Could a similar deal be struck now?

While Washington and Havana are cooperating on the fight against Ebola, the U.S. maintains a program that offers Cuban health workers abroad a fast track to U.S. residency if they defect. Disagreement over this program doomed U.S.-Cuban cooperation on rebuilding Haiti’s healthcare system after the 2010 earthquake. Eliminating it will be on the Cuban agenda for future talks about deepening cooperation in response to global health emergencies.

Finally, the last agenda item will be Guantanamo. Cuba claims it as sovereign territory and wants the United States out. Washington insists on the validity of the 1934 treaty leasing the base to the U.S.

The litany of obstacles to be overcome before U.S.-Cuban relations are fully normalized should not detract from the enormity of the steps taken by Obama and Castro. They replaced a Cold War framework of animosity with a 21st century policy of engagement and cooperation. This new chapter provides the means to manage issues where interests conflict, and to reach accord on issues where interests coincide. A series of such agreements should quickly follow — on counter-narcotics, Coast Guard search and rescue, disaster preparedness and response, and law enforcement cooperation against human trafficking.

In April at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama, the two presidents will continue their dialogue face to face and take the next steps on the road to reconciliation. It is a long road, rife with curves and potholes that may slow progress and occasionally cause reversals. But finally, after 55 years of antagonism, the journey has begun.

William M. LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University and author with Peter Kornbluh of the recent book “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”

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