Is Obama contemplating unilateral action on Cuba?

The Spanish foreign minister's recent statement that he would bring 'concrete messages' from the US government to Havana has some Republicans speculating that President Obama is looking to move further away from decades-old policy on Cuba.

Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez shakes hands with his Spanish counterpart, José Manuel García-Margallo (l.), during their meeting in Havana Tuesday. Mr. García-Margallo's recent comment that he brings 'very concrete messages' to Cuba from the US government has sparked concerns among Republicans that President Obama is planning unilateral action in regard to Cuba.

Is President Obama about to take unilateral steps to ease US relations with Cuba?

A number of recent developments – from Mr. Obama’s recourse to executive action on immigration to the Spanish foreign minister’s enigmatic statement that he would be carrying “very concrete messages” from the US government when he visits Havana this week – have some Republicans fretting that the White House aims to move even further from decades-old policy of isolating communist Cuba.

Obama last took action on Cuba in 2011, when he eased travel restrictions on Americans visiting the island. But a year ago in Florida, he raised eyebrows – and the hopes of supporters about a new US direction with Cuba – when he spoke of wanting “to continue to update our policies.”

It makes no sense, the president said, to continue with policies from 1961 “in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel.”

Some advocates of liberalized relations with Cuba are pressing the administration for concrete steps before April. That’s when Obama is slated to take part in the Summit of the Americas in Panama, which is expected to be the first such hemispheric gathering to include Cuba.

In the past, the United States has vetoed Cuba’s participation on the grounds that the gathering is limited to the hemisphere’s democracies, but a number of countries have said they would not attend next year’s summit if Cuba were once again barred.

But supporters of the status quo on relations with Cuba counter that if the US has stuck with policies from the 1960s – notably an embargo – it’s because the Castro regime that came to power in that era continues today to deny the Cuban people the democratic governance and human rights that most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere enjoys.

Last week Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio used a confirmation hearing for Antony Blinken, Obama’s deputy national security adviser and his choice to become deputy secretary of State, to grill Mr. Blinken about “chatter” in Washington that Obama intends to make “unilateral change” on US-Cuba policy.

Ending the embargo would require congressional action, but there are other steps the president could take to redirect US policy on Cuba.

After several attempts to get Blinken to rule out executive action on Cuba, Senator Rubio said, “The thing that concerns me is that I haven’t heard you say point-blank that, absent democratic openings, we’re not going to see actions on the part of this administration to weaken the current embargo and sanctions on Cuba.”

In response, Blinken said Obama has ideas on how to “help Cuba move in a democratic direction,” and he added, “If [Obama] has an opportunity, I’m sure that’s something he would want to pursue.” But he emphasized that “it depends on Cuba and the actions that they take.”

One action the administration is looking for is the release of US aid worker Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for bringing satellite phones and computer equipment into Cuba without a permit. Mr. Gross was handed a 15-year sentence in 2011 after being found guilty of “acts against the state” for his role in US efforts to set up a communications network in Cuba free of government control.

Speculation has swirled in Washington over the past week that the Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, could be delivering to officials in Havana this week a list of actions the US could take if the impediment of Gross’s incarceration were out of the way.  

On Monday at the State Department, spokesman Jeff Rathke was asked at the daily press briefing what Mr. García-Margallo was referring to when he spoke of having “very concrete messages” from the US government to take to Cuban officials.

“I have nothing to confirm about that,” Mr. Rathke responded.

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