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US-Cuba relations: why Republicans are divided on new rules (+video)

The new US regulations on travel and trade, which take effect Friday, were both condemned and praised by Senate Republicans, suggesting a lack of unanimity that will likely make for relatively smooth sailing for President Obama’s new tack on Cuba.

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    Tourists ride in a classic American car on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, in 2013. A new set of US government regulations takes effect Friday, loosening the 50-decade long travel and trade restrictions with the island.
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The Obama administration took its first steps Thursday toward making good on the president’s decision in December to normalize relations with Cuba, issuing new regulations making it easier for Americans to travel, send money, and export goods to the communist island country.

Announcement of the anticipated regulations drew a fresh round of condemnation from critics of restored relations with Cuba. But unlike other executive actions carried out by President Obama, the Cuba moves are sparking division rather than unanimity among congressional Republicans and pitting a “democracy and human rights first” camp against business and trade advocates in what might be called a “Chamber of Commerce” camp. 

Those divisions appear to make it unlikely that Obama’s normalization will be stopped, despite pledges from some Cuban-American members of Congress to stymie the process at every turn.

The new regulations, announced by the Treasury and Commerce departments, come a month after Mr. Obama’s surprise announcement and a week before a senior State Department official travels to Havana to discuss with Cuban officials the next steps in the process of reversing more than a half-century of hostilities and severed relations between the two neighbors.

Reflecting Obama’s desire to move quickly, administration officials are hinting that Secretary of State John Kerry could travel to Cuba before the end of the year to cap the normalization process and mark the formal re-opening of an American embassy in Havana (Officially, the two countries only have “interest sections” of the Swiss embassy in each other's capital, although for all practical purposes those offices operate like embassies).

The new measures, which take effect Friday, run the gamut from allowing Americans to use credit cards in Cuba to raising the limit on remittance payments by Cubans living in the US to family in Cuba from $2,000 to $8,000 a year.

Cuba, which already imports food from US farm producers through a convoluted payment system, will now see those import hoops reduced and simplified. Imports of other US goods, including telecommunications equipment and computers, will also be easier under the new rules. 

The new regulations do not pave the way for generalized open travel by Americans to Cuba – that would require an end to the US trade embargo on Cuba dating from 1961, a step requiring congressional action. But restrictions on the categories of US citizens who can travel to Cuba – academics, business representatives, education exchange participants – have been eased. Among other things, those people will no longer have to apply for a license before traveling. 

And those Americans who do travel to Cuba will now be allowed to return to the US with up to $400 worth of goods, although no more than $100 in alcohol or tobacco products.

The new regulations constitute a “significant step forward in delivering on the president’s new direction” in relations with Cuba, the White House said in a statement previewing the Treasury and Commerce announcements.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the new regulations put the US “one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and [moves the US toward] a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people.”

Saying the new regulations will “spur private sector activity and encourage entrepreneurship in Cuba,” Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker lauded the action as “an important first step toward increased engagement that will expand our economic relationship and strengthen our people to people connections with Cuba.” 

The new regulations were both condemned and praised by Senate Republicans, suggesting a lack of unanimity that will likely make for relatively smooth sailing for Obama’s new tack on Cuba.

“This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against US national interests in Latin America and beyond,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and Cuban-American, said in a statement.

Countering the Obama argument that US engagement and economic activity will benefit Cubans more than isolation, he added, “this one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime at the expense of US national interests and the Cuban people.”

But other Republicans praised the new regulations and signed on to the Obama argument that economic engagement and an expanded American presence can help foster political change – an argument with deep Republican roots.

“Amending these regulations is not just about increasing commercial ties for agricultural producers in Kansas and across the country – I believe closer ties could help change the nature of the relationship between the Cuban people and their repressive government,” Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran said in a statement. “Increasing the standard of living among Cuban citizens will enable them to make greater demands on their own government to increase individual and political rights.”

The engagement-versus-isolation debate set in motion by Obama’s normalization steps is not limited to Congress, but is also on full display in Florida, a state with the largest Cuban population outside Cuba.

A microcosm of that debate can be seen in the differing reactions of two Florida cities to the prospect of hosting a Cuban consulate to serve the interests of Cuban-Americans and Cubans residing in the US.

Miami is already saying “NO!” to a consulate, while Tampa is saying “Bienvenidos!”

With about one-third of its population Cuban-American, Miami would seem like a logical location for a Cuban consulate. But Mayor Tomás Regalado says intense and polarized feelings in the city about the Cuban government and US relations with it could make a consulate a lightning rod for protests and disruption.

But Tampa, which has a much smaller though still considerable Cuban-American population, is sounding a different – and more commerce-oriented – tone. City leaders are talking up the advantages of stronger economic ties to Cuba, the Chamber of Commerce recently traveled to Cuba, and the city’s airport and port are declaring themselves open for business with Cuba.

In a recent press release, the Port of Tampa Bay declared itself ready to “aggressively market [our] first-rate facilities to our Cuban neighbors.”

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