By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — In a move that has been hailed as historic, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed an executive order to “re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba.”
The move to thaw the relationship with this communist country comes after months of secret talks between the Obama administration and Cuban officials in Canada and the Vatican. Talks culminated with a 45-minute conversation on Tuesday between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, which detailed ways the United States would end 53 years of enmity that has caused disagreement in Latin America and the Caribbean. Fidel Castro was not involved in these discussions, officials said.
Obama had to forgo Congress. Only Congress, which imposed sanctions on Cuba in 1961, can dismantle them completely. So the president’s move was mostly a symbolic but powerful one, according to a White House official on background call before Obama’s live speech. This move represents the most significant changes to America’s Cuba policy in more than 50 years, including the Helms-Burton Act enacted in 1996. The Act strengthened the America’s embargo against Cuba.
White House officials believe this is a “step in the right direction.”
“These are the steps that I can take to change these policies,” Obama said in his televised speech from the East Room, emphasizing the limits of his unilateral move to help the U.S. “normalize relations” with Cuba.
Unresolved disputes remain, however. Cubans urged for an end of the U.S. pro-democracy programs in Cuba, which they see as a subversive attempt to overthrow Castro. The White House stood firm on those demands, refusing to disrupt that policy.
Obama’s executive order bodes well for Cuba’s economy because Cuba agreed to release political prisoners, including “a very frail” Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who U.S. officials said was wrongfully imprisoned. The order now allows travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.
Former Florida Governor and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, challenged Obama’s move toward Cuba, saying to USA Today: “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship.”
Bush has favorable ratings in large Cuban-American constituencies in Florida.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban American, said he would do all he can as the incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block Obama’s plan. More specifically, Rubio said he would block anyone Obama nominates to serve as ambassador to Cuba.
While politicos plan to make moves in Congress, most Americans will now be able to travel to Cuba. Previously, there was a ban on all travel to Cuba. Now, government officials and academicians can travel there for research purposes.
“With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island,” Obama said.
Other benefits to Americans in this move also allow Cuban Americans to send remittances to their family, U.S. embassies can now be in Cuba, and more businesses can have easier trade relations.
Travel for tourist activities are still banned.
According to Sen. Rand Paul, (R-KY) on a West Virginia radio station the embargo on Cuba just hasn’t worked.
“If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working,” Paul said.
Photo Credit: President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Cuba and the release of American Alan Gross, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)