WASHINGTON – Advocates of prying Cuba policy a bit further open are looking to the Obama administration rather than Congress for help.
Experts gathered in Washington on Tuesday to discuss actions the Obama administration can take to improve relations with Cuba by lessening current U.S. sanctions. The panel, meeting at the Brookings Institution, focused its recommendations on executive action President Obama can take without Congressional involvement and the potential for reciprocal steps taken by Havana.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is serving as special envoy for the Organization of American States, led the discussion, outlining possible steps the leaders of both countries could take to improve relations and show “good-faith” efforts to increase economic ties between the two nations. For the Obama administration, Richardson recommended removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, reducing or eliminating restrictions on travel to Cuba, and allowing U.S. citizens to open bank accounts in Cuba.
Richardson said these steps may push Havana to take reciprocal steps, such as the easing restrictions for Cubans traveling abroad, and increasing cooperation with the U.S. on environmental issues.
The panel’s focus on executive-branch action reflected the diminishing of options open to President Obama after the Republicans’ takeover of the House of Representatives and increased numbers in the Senate. Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio recently filed an amendment that would restrict new airports from offering flights to Cuba — a measure approved by Obama in January as part of a relaxation of travel and remittance policy to Cuba.
Richardson acknowledged this new political reality, but said “the Menendez-Rubio bill should not be a signal that the president should stop,” instead urging the administration to use executive orders and negotiations before dealing with larger issues requiring Congressional involvement.
Stephen Propost of the international law firm Hogan-Lovells explained the legal authority the president has in dealing with Cuba. “Significantly, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the president does have broad authority to modify the sanctions,” citing the two times the non-partisan investigative arm of the U.S. Congress reviewed executive actions taken by Presidents Clinton and Obama.
The GAO reports concluded the president maintains “broad discretion” to make additional modifications to the existing embargo. These possible modifications, like the ones suggested by Richardson, would be limited in scope and would be largely symbolic in nature.
One issue viewed as essential to easing tensions between the two nations is the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross who was arrested in Havana in December 2009. Gross has been imprisoned ever since, and Cuban prosecutors announced earlier this month that they will seek a 20-year prison sentence for “acts against the integrity and independence” of Cuba.
Such issues keep U.S.-Cuba relations highly political, but as President Obama and U.S. manufacturers seek to increase U.S. exports, the embargo has grown increasingly unpopular and its critics have grown to include the business community.
“The Chamber’s position is very simple: we oppose the embargo,” said Patrick Kilbride, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “(Our) opposition stems from the lost economic opportunity the U.S. embargo on Cuba represents,” Kilbride added.
“Cuba is a natural market for U.S. goods and services,” Kilbride said. “And Cuba fits into this pattern of markets we’re forfeiting around the world.”
Image: Milo80 @ Flickr.