Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced the biggest change in United States policy towards Cuba of the past 50 years. But while Obama deserves praise for finally taking executive action on the issue, Congress remains the main obstacle to improved relations with Havana.
At noon yesterday, both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro gave statements announcing the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries, as well as the exchange of the remaining imprisoned members of the “Cuban Five” for USAID contractor Alan Gross and another unidentified U.S. intelligence agent. The Miami Herald notes that some analysts have speculated that the man is 51-year-old Rolando Sarraff, who helped identify a number of Cuban spies within the U.S.
The announcement was the result of 18 months of secret talks facilitated by Pope Francis and the Canadian government, which culminated in a 45-minute long phone conversation on Tuesday between Obama and Castro. The New York Times reports that the process was also eased by Secretary of State John Kerry’s direct line of communication with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla.
In his speech, Obama ordered the State Department to end the dubious inclusion of Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terror, and said he would further ease restrictions on travel and allow greater banking ties to the island. He also said he would join his Cuban counterpart at the April Summit of the Americas, though he said he would “insist” that civil society join in the meeting as well. Fusion has a very helpful bullet point breakdown of the concrete policy changes that will result from the announcement.
For Latin America watchers, Obama’s remarks contained an important recognition of the shift’s potential ramifications for the region. The president began his announcement by justifying the move as an attempt to “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas,” and ended it by saying, in Spanish, “Todos somos Americanos.” As the AFP reports, the speech has already been widely applauded by the heads of state of Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Colombia, among other nations.
Though most of the region -- including Cubans themselves and some Cuban-Americans in Florida -- is celebrating the announcement, the embargo supporters inside the beltway are fuming. Bloomberg reports that the usual suspects (Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez) have all announced they oppose Obama’s executive action, with most framing it as rewarding a dictatorial regime for poor behavior.
Rubio, a potential Republican White House candidate in 2016, was especially vehement. “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,” reads a statement released by his office. “As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President’s change in policy.”
Politico notes that when the Republicans assume majority control of the Senate next year, legislation ending the embargo is off the table, and they will be in a position to block presidential nominations. This would include any ambassador to Cuba.
While their opposition is not particularly surprising, it is interesting to note that these figures are increasingly finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. As The Hill notes, polls show that a majority of Americans support ending the embargo, and an Atlantic Council survey released in February found that even a majority of Florida respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” support “normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba.”
- One element of the Cuba shift that will be interesting to watch in the coming months is how it will play out for the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The AFP reports that a number of regional experts have predicted that it could Chavismo to alter its traditional discourse of a region-wide anti-imperialist struggle. As opposition leader Henrique Capriles put it in a quote to Reuters, “It looks like Raul is cheating on Nicolas!”
- Maduro, for his part, has not seemed publicly phased by the change in U.S.-Cuba relations. As El Pais reports, the Venezuelan president praised the U.S. leader for his “bravery,” and referred to the release of the Cuban Five as “a victory for Fidel and the Cuban people.”
- Yesterday saw an important development in the the hemisphere’s other Cold War-era conflict as well. Colombia’s FARC guerrillas announced an indefinite unilateral ceasefire beginning on December 20. While the rebels have announced and maintained previous ceasefires during the holiday season since 2012, this one stands out for the rebels’ willingness to keep it open-ended, albeit on one condition: the ceasefire will end if guerrillas come under attack from security forces. The FARC also invited the UNASUR and CELAC regional blocs to observe its adherence to the ceasefire. According to El Espectador and Semana, while the government has applauded the ceasefire as an important goodwill gesture, it has rejected the involvement of outside actors in monitoring the ceasefire, and maintains that it will not discuss ending hostilities until the current agenda item of victims’ rights is settled.
- In the latest incident of tension between Ecuadorean officials and indigenous groups, the government is revoking the license of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) to use its current offices. El Comercio reports that the government is refusing to renew its contract in order to use the space to rehabilitate youth substance abusers, but as El Universo notes, CONAIE has framed the order as an attack on its work and is refusing to leave.
- Following an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report recommending that the Mexican government allow an independent investigation into the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa, Animal Politico reports that authorities have agreed to provide the investigation with a budget of one million pesos (some 70,000 USD).
- Apart from the New York Times’ wave of coverage of the Cuba deal today is an interesting investigation into the ties between an elite Ecuadorean family and figures in the Obama administration. According to the NYT, the administration waived travel bans on individuals accused of financial crimes in Ecuador in exchange for thousands of dollars in campaign donations.
- Guatemala’s Plaza Publica has an interview with Judge Claudia Escobar, whose October resignation from an appellate court position helped focus international attention on the extent of corruption in the country’s judiciary. Despite her efforts, however, she laments that little has changed on this front.
- As the country’s standoff over long-stalled elections continues, the AP reports that Haitian President Michel Martelly met with opposition leaders yesterday in talks over the recommendations of an independent commission tasked with ending the political crisis. While no major announcement came yesterday, two opposition activists were freed in accordance with the commission’s report.
- The Economist casts a critical eye on Brazil’s response to the historic drought in São Paulo, noting that officials at all levels of government have failed to implement rationing or incentive measures necessary to replenish the city’s water reserves.