If the embargo of Cuba had been aimed at keeping the Castro brothers in power, it might be judged today as the most successful foreign policy in the history of the U.S. Almost 53 years after President John F. Kennedy declared the embargo on all trade “in light of the subversive offensive of Sino-Soviet Communism with which the Government of Cuba is publicly aligned,” the Castros are still ruling the island nation under the banner of communism. They have outlasted Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush, and most of Obama’s presidency. “These policies defy reason,” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt wrote on his Google+ feed after a visit in June, marveling that U.S. law prevented him from renting a hotel room for more than $99 a night. The failed American embargo is as anachronistic as one of those patched-up 1950s Pontiacs that still cruise the streets of Havana.
Anachronistic, however, doesn’t equal “over.” Now that a week or so has passed since President Obama’s surprise Dec. 17 announcement that he will loosen restrictions on travel, trade, and banking, it’s becoming clear that the rapprochement with Cuba is incomplete and ill-defined. For one thing, Congress hasn’t lifted the embargo. The day of the announcement, John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser of the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said Obama was promising to make the embargo as hollow as an Easter egg. A week later he used a different metaphor: Change, he fears, “is going to slow down like molasses.”
Here’s the problem. While the majority of Americans and Cubans favor better relations, change is opposed by polar opposites: elements of Cuba’s communist leadership, and the Cuban Americans who are committed to driving them out. One of the latter is Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a former Republican congressman from Miami who retired in 2011 to make way for his younger brother. (Much like, ahem, Fidel Castro.) Díaz-Balart helped write the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which tightened the embargo. He says it would be a mistake to ease the pressure on the Castros now that their benefactor, Venezuela, is being squeezed by low oil prices. “People are going to realize in the next months that there’s no change in the law. There’s not going to be a change in the law,” says Díaz-Balart. “It’s a lot of splash, but it’s not a lot of cash.”
On the Cuban side, President Raúl Castro is more of a reformer than his ailing older brother, but he’s moving at a snail’s pace, and there’s virtually zero chance he’ll meet the conditions for removal of the embargo spelled out in Helms-Burton: release of all political prisoners; scheduling of multiparty elections; independent courts, unions, and press; and the expulsion of Fidel and himself from the government. Castro faces pressure to toe the communist line from other historicos—fighters in the Cuban Revolution—such as Ramiro Valdés, a hard-liner who clamped down on the Internet as communications minister and in 2007 said “the wild colt of new technologies can and must be controlled.” Then there are the potentially restive Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces, to which Castro nodded in his address to the nation on the agreement with the U.S. by wearing olive-green fatigues bedecked with medals. “He has to be very careful because of the army. It’s more powerful than the party,” says Carmelo Mesa-Lago, 80, an economist who worked under the Castros in the first flush of the revolution’s success but left in 1961 after the regime seized universities and newspapers.
This is not to take anything away from Obama, who’s done more than any president to establish normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The countries will exchange ambassadors. His administration will ease restrictions on exports of food as well as construction and telecommunications equipment and begin to establish banking ties. The U.S. Department of State will review whether to end Cuba’s outdated designation as one of four state sponsors of terrorism, along with Iran, Sudan, and Syria.
After that, though, things get messy. Robert Muse, a lawyer knowledgeable about U.S. laws relating to Cuba, argues that Obama has latitude to do more. He says the drafters of Helms-Burton—rushed through Congress in strengthened form after Cuban MiGs shot down two unarmed planes flown by a U.S.-based anti-Castro group over the Straits of Florida on Feb. 24, 1996—“inadvertently codified, froze in place, the discretion for the president to license almost anything under the embargo.” He notes that Obama used that discretion to allow each American visitor to Cuba to return with $400 worth of goods, which was never before permitted. Argues Muse: “If he does it for refrigerator magnets”—i.e., small sums—“he can do it for thousands of cases of Cuban rum or boxes of cigars.”
Obama shouldn’t try it, warns Díaz-Balart, now a lawyer in Miami and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute. “Obviously we’re going to see a lot of legal challenges.” Díaz-Balart also points out that the law continues to prohibit lending to Cuba, requiring the nation to pay in cash for anything it buys. And Kavulich, the policy adviser, says Cuba’s banks haven’t met disclosure standards that U.S. banks require to do business with them.
Expect guerrilla warfare over Cuban policy. Some battles will be fought in the courts, as Díaz-Balart intimates; others in Congress. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the son of pre-Castro Cuban immigrants, vowed on his website to “make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
Rubio and his allies could try to block funding for an embassy—although the U.S. already has a consular-like Interests Section housed in the former embassy—or refuse to approve an ambassador. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), also the child of Cuban immigrants and an opponent of the Castros, wants hearings in the committee next year, although he will lose his chairmanship because the Democrats have lost their Senate majority.
The fighting will also occur, albeit less visibly, in Cuba, where Raúl Castro has shown little stomach for the changes that will be required to make Cuba’s economy function properly. If Castro, whose term expires in 2018, drags his heels or can’t move the communist old guard, little will happen. “There is this idea in Cuba that lifting the embargo is going to fix everything,” says Mesa-Lago, who has a Ph.D. in economics from Cornell. “The major problem is to fix the economics. They need production to pay for imports. This is not going to be a magic thing.”
Public opinion may play a decisive role. As Obama knows, the opening between Cuba and the country to the north that Cubans call La Yuma—apparently from the Hollywood film 3:10 to Yuma that was popular in Cuba in the 1950s—will whet an appetite for deeper ties that will be hard for the communists to resist. In the U.S., Muse, the lawyer, questions whether potential Republican presidential candidates like Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, also a stalwart anti-Castroite, will want to go heavy on an issue that will strike most Americans as a relic of the best-forgotten Cold War.
On the other hand, the stalemate across the Florida Straits has proved its staying power. Miami just elected another Cuban American foe of Castro to Congress, Republican Carlos Curbelo. He’s 34. Even in the best scenario, change will take time. To Americans with just a bit of Spanish, sin embargo sounds like “without embargo.” It actually means “nevertheless.” So consider this: The U.S. embargo may be an abject failure, bad for Americans and Cubans alike. Nevertheless, it continues. Sin embargo, el embargo continua.