Thursday, April 27, 2017

Cuba: U.S. Policy in the 115th Congress

Cuba remains a one-party authoritarian state with a poor record on human rights. Current President Raúl Castro succeeded his long-ruling brother Fidel Castro in 2006, and the succession was characterized by a remarkable degree of stability. Raúl began his second and final five-year term as president in 2013, which is scheduled to end in February 2018, when he would be 86 years of age. Most observers see First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel as the “heir apparent” as president, although Raúl likely will continue in his position as first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party (PCC). Under Raúl, Cuba has implemented gradual market-oriented economic policy changes over the past decade, but critics maintain that the government has not taken enough action to foster sustainable economic growth. Few observers expect the government to ease its tight control over the political system, especially as the country approaches its political succession in 2018. Although the government has released numerous political prisoners in recent years, it still holds an estimated 75-95 political prisoners. Moreover, short-term detentions and harassment against democracy and human rights activists have increased over the past several years.

U.S. Policy

Congress has played an active role in shaping policy toward Cuba, including the enactment of legislation strengthening and at times easing various U.S. economic sanctions. Since the early 1960s, when the United States first imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, the centerpiece of U.S. policy has consisted of economic sanctions aimed at isolating the Cuban government. In December 2014, however, the Obama Administration initiated a major Cuba policy shift, moving away from sanctions toward a policy of engagement and a normalization of relations. The policy change included the restoration of diplomatic relations (July 2015), the rescission of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of international terrorism (May 2015), and an increase in travel, commerce, and the flow of information to Cuba. To implement this third step, the Treasury and Commerce Departments eased the embargo regulations five times (most recently in October 2016) in such areas as travel, remittances, trade, telecommunications, and financial services. The overall embargo, however, remains in place, and can be lifted only with congressional action or if the President determines and certifies to Congress that certain conditions in Cuba are met, including that a democratically elected government is in place.

The outlook for U.S. policy toward Cuba under the Trump Administration is uncertain. According to U.S. officials, the Administration is conducting a full review of U.S. policy toward Cuba, with human rights at the forefront of those discussions. Statements by President Trump before his inauguration suggest that he could reverse some of the policy changes taken by the Obama Administration to normalize relations.

Legislative Activity

There are contrasting congressional views on the appropriate U.S. policy approach toward Cuba. Numerous legislative initiatives and provisions in appropriations bills in the 114th Congress would have further eased or lifted the embargo, whereas other initiatives would have blocked efforts toward normalization. Ultimately, none of these initiatives were enacted.

In the 115th Congress, debate over Cuba policy likely will continue, especially with regard to U.S. economic sanctions. To date, several bills have been introduced to ease or lift economic sanctions altogether: H.R. 351 (travel), H.R. 442/S. 472 (some economic sanctions), H.R. 498 (telecommunications), H.R. 525 (agricultural exports and investment), H.R. 572 (agricultural and medical exports and travel), H.R. 574 (overall embargo), and S. 275 (private financing for U.S. agricultural exports).

Purchase at Amazon                                                     Purchase at eStore