Is Obama's Cuba policy set in stone?

President Obama announced a new round of changes that loosen restrictions imposed by the trade embargo, hoping to keep relations with Cuba open after he leaves office. But analysts say the normalization was already irreversible.

Ramon Espinosa/AP/File
Cuban President Raul Castro (r.) lifts up the arm of President Obama at the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Palace of the Revolution, in Havana, Cuba, in March. Mr. Obama announced a sixth round of changes to loosen trade restrictions between the two countries on Friday.

Normalizing relations with countries like Cuba and Iran has been near the top of President Obama’s agenda since he took office in 2008. Now, he’s looking to make current relations irreversible after his term is up.

On Friday, the White House announced a new round of changes in US-Cuba relations. The changes – which loosen existing restrictions – will allow for a number of new interactions, including the export of some US consumer goods sold online, US companies providing safety services for Cuban commercial airlines, and US and Cuban medical researchers working together.

For Mr. Obama, the changes are an effort to ring-fence his normalization policy before he leaves office. Though the policy has not been met with universal support, even critics, who say the US government is ignoring human rights violations by Cuba, believe the changes Obama has made are permanent.

“At this point we’re not going to see a reversal [of normalization] – even the harshest critics of the president’s Cuba policy realize that train has left the station,” Ana Quintana, Western Hemisphere policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told The Christian Science Monitor in July.

Officials in the Obama administration say political openness is here to stay as a result of the important ties it has created between the two countries’ governments, citizens, and companies. The restrictions loosened Friday are the sixth, and probably the last, round of changes to be made by this White House.

"We've increased the space for this type of travel, people to people exchange, commercial opportunities in ways that are already having a positive impact on the lives of Americans and Cubans," a senior US official told Reuters. "Turning back the clock on that policy would only take away those opportunities."

Another reason the change may not be reversed: its low priority to the next administration. Cuba is not the national security concern it was during the cold war. The president’s efforts to reincorporate Iran into the international system will likely be the target of greater attention, given concerns over the country’s nuclear program.

Both Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have suggested that they would alter the relationship, however. Mr. Trump announced at a mid-September rally in Miami that he would reverse the normalization of relations unless the Cuban government complied with demands from religious and political freedom to the freeing of all political prisoners. The Republican candidate had previously said he supported normalized relations but thought the deal favored Cuba. Secretary Clinton has said she supports normalization, but would like to see the US press the Cuban government on human rights.

Obama says maintaining relations will allow the United States to impact human rights in Cuba.

"Challenges remain – and very real differences between our governments persist on issues of democracy and human rights – but I believe that engagement is the best way to address those differences and make progress on behalf of our interests and values," he said in a statement on Friday.

Congress controls many of the remaining restrictions on US-Cuba relations. The legislature shows no sign of lifting the trade embargo, which has been in place for more than five decades. That hesitancy was reinforced when Cuba denied visas to members of Congress who wanted to inspect Cuban airport security before commercial flights resumed in August.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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