It’s Congress’s Turn to Act on Cuba
Waiting for Marco.
The latest U.S. easing of regulations on commerce with Cuba is good news, not least for fans of rum and cigars. But it’s also a sign that President Barack Obama’s drive to normalize relations is approaching the limits of his authority.
With this new initiative, Obama has done about as much as he can to lighten the burden of a pointless and outdated embargo. Moving policy on Cuba any further in the right direction will require action by Congress.
This sixth round of easing will allow joint medical research and imports of Cuban pharmaceuticals approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As a result, U.S. clinical trials of a promising Cuban lung-cancer vaccine, for example, will be able to go forward. Cubans will be eligible for grants and scholarships for scientific and religious research in the U.S. It will be easier for U.S. businesses to trade by air and ship, and for Americans to work on improving Cuba’s infrastructure.
The president says his new directive makes the U.S. opening to Cuba “irreversible.” Maybe so, but much of the embargo, codified over the last half-century into a thicket of laws, remains -- and it will take legislation to lift it.
There’s movement in that direction. U.S. public opinion on this has shifted -- including among Cuban-Americans -- presenting a new electoral challenge to some of the embargo’s most die-hard proponents. A half-dozen bipartisan bills chipping away at the embargo have been put forward since 2015.
Among the most significant is a bill to let Americans travel freely to Cuba as tourists, instead of under one of 12 categories of "authorized travel." The number of U.S. travelers to Cuba already rose by 75 percent between 2014 and 2015. This summer’s start of direct flights from the U.S. will drive that higher still.
Defenders of what’s left of the embargo say these new visitors will just put hard currency in the pockets of Cuba’s repressive regime. But in many ways, the surge is already outstripping the state’s ability to capture the proceeds. An embryonic private sector is growing -- of self-employed Cubans renting out rooms, running restaurants, or driving taxis. Airbnb already has about 10,000 listings across the island; meanwhile, state-owned restaurants complain that they’re losing customers to -- gasp! -- competition.
The success of these entrepreneurs will fuel a revolution of rising expectations. The influx of visitors’ dollars is also putting pressure on Cuba’s government to junk its dual-currency regime, one of the biggest impediments to foreign investment and economic reform. Notwithstanding the occasional ugly American, most U.S. tourists are walking, talking spokesmen for the capitalist freedoms championed, to less effect, by the embargo’s remaining defenders.
By the way, one of those visitors ought to be the newly nominated U.S. ambassador. His posting requires congressional action as well: He awaits a confirmation hearing. Over to you, Capitol Hill.
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