Opposition to Easing Embargo Is Vocal But Small, Atlantic Council Analyst Says

As US and Cuban officials meet in Havana this week for their first talks on normalizing relations, Congress is likely to favor moving slowly on President Obama’s request for the lifting of the United States’ five-decade-old trade embargo on Cuba, says Atlantic Council analyst Rachel DeLevie-Orey.

Since President Barack Obama’s announcement last month of his plan to normalize US-Cuban relations, Congress has been divided on how to deal with the embargo law, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. A vocal group, mainly of Republicans, is urging that it be retained, despite Obama’s urging, in his State of the Union address January 20, that Congress begin dismantling the embargo.

“That is a very loud contingent, but it is also a very, very small contingent,” said DeLevie-Orey, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “Their loudness on the issue should not be confused with the number of votes that exist.” Congress overall is likely to wind up “chipping away at the embargo in bits and pieces,” she said.

Obama on December 17 announced his intention to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, starting with opening an embassy in Havana. “Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere,” Obama said in the State of the Union speech. “It removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba.”

US and Cuban officials are holding their first high-level talks this week to begin the normalization of relations. The first day of talks, yesterday, aired the two sides’ differences over immigration policy. Talks today are to focus on diplomatic, travel and trade links.

“Right now what the Obama administration is looking to do is to be able to cooperate with the Cubans on a host of issues that are considered of mutual interest,” said DeLevie-Orey.

DeLevie-Orey spoke in an interview with New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts:

Q: President Obama in his State of the Union speech urged Congress to end the trade embargo with Cuba. Is there a willingness in Congress to comply?

DeLevie-Orey: Two different approaches have been discussed. One would be completely lifting Helms-Burton, which is the law that encompasses the trade embargo and certain travel restrictions. The other way is to go about chipping away at the embargo in bits and pieces.

We saw in our poll that people are even more enthusiastic about removing specific elements of the embargo, rather than lifting it entirely, though there is majority support for that as well. We also see this in Congress. For example, there is strong support across the aisle for lifting the travel ban.

From the Republican side there is a strong libertarian argument for lifting the travel ban, which is, ‘We shouldn’t be restricting Americans’ freedom of movement.’

As for a total lifting, I don’t think it is impossible, but I think that we’re more likely to see it get chipped away at more effectively.

Democrats tend to favor lifting the embargo completely, more so than Republicans, but not dramatically more so.

Among the American public there is only an eight percent difference between Republicans and Democrats on this issue, which is incredibly small for public opinion in this polarized climate.

The challenge along party lines in Congress is that those who favor keeping Helms-Burton are principally Republican, with Senator Menendez as a notable exception in the Democratic Party. That is a very loud contingent, but it is also a very, very small contingent. Their loudness on the issue should not be confused with the number of votes that exist.

Q: What concessions will the Obama administration be looking to win from Cuba to help the president sell his new Cuba policy to Congress?  

DeLevie-Orey: Right now what the Obama administration is looking to do is to be able to cooperate with the Cubans on a host of issues that are considered of mutual interest. These include health care issues — there was a lot of US cooperation with Cuba on Ebola, opening up a mail system, environmental issues, oil spill prevention, narco-trafficking, and having the coast guards coordinate on search and rescue. These issues that are of mutual concern will definitely be top of the mind for the administration and probably considered among the low-hanging fruit.

Additionally, the Obama administration has emphasized that they are going to continue advocate for human rights and active participation of civil society.

Q: What is Cuba looking for from the US in the immediate as well as the long term?

DeLevie-Orey: What will likely be most beneficial for Cuban society will be an increase in access to certain goods, particularly from the agriculture and medical supplies health care sector. American companies are now allowed to sell construction materials to Cuba for the construction of private homes and businesses as well as places of worship, this is also something the Cubans will be happy to see.

The most beneficial thing for the Cubans will be removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list because that will give them access to international financial institutions. Loans and aid from the IMF and the IDB will be instrumental in the country’s development.

Q: Wouldn’t it take a while to get Cuba off the state sponsors of terrorism list?

DeLevie-Orey: If we’re talking in bureaucratic terms here, it should be relatively swift. When the president announced the changes [to US Cuba policy] on December 17 he said that he had asked Secretary [of State John F.] Kerry to do a review of Cuba’s status and that he be given a report in six months or less. That is pretty swift turnaround when we’re talking of bureaucratic movement. I think we could really see serious movement on this within the year.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor at the Atlantic Council

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