If you’ve every dreamt of visiting Havana, it’s your lucky day. As part of a historic thaw in relations between the two cold-war adversaries, the Obama administration has finalized new rules making it easier to travel between the United States and Cuba, and they take effect today.
Before you can board the plane, however, you’ll need to affirm that you’re traveling for one of the approved reasons, not simply tourism. And many limits on trade and business activities will remain in place as well. Eliminating these lingering restrictions would require something even more unusual than a US-Cuba agreement; it would require cooperation between the President and Congress.
What’s in the agreement?
In December, the Obama administration announced a surprise agreement between the two countries that would free some Cuban and American prisoners, restore diplomatic relations, increase economic activity, and introduce the first major thaw in relations between the two countries since 1961.
The basic pillars of the agreement include:
- Prisoner exchange. Two American prisoners held in Cuba were returned to the United States. One of them is USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who was jailed for bringing illegal technology into the country. The other, a long-imprisoned US intelligence agent was freed as part of an exchange for three Cuban agents. The Cuban government has also released a number of political prisoners.
- Diplomatic relations. In addition to restoring full diplomatic relations and setting up an embassy in Havana, the United States is reviewing whether Cuba should still be considered a state sponsor of terrorism.
- Travel restrictions. Previously, if you wanted to travel to Cuba you needed to get a special license. But no longer. Moving forward, travelers will simply have to state that they have a valid reason for their trip, whether it’s an educational or religious activity, professional research, a public performance, or one of the other approved categories. They can also bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars and $400 worth of goods in total. And while in the past it was often necessary to charter a plane, existing airlines can now setup regular service.
- Economic activity. American businesses will have slightly more freedom to trade with Cuba, and Cuban-Americans will be able to send more money to family members still in Cuba. But because Cuba remains a communist country and Obama still has to contend with the official US embargo, these economic changes are pretty narrow.
What’s not in the agreement?
Only Congress can formally repeal the embargo that blocks trade and tourism with Cuba. But the president has some latitude in how he chooses to organize and enforce that embargo, and he is using that latitude to start implementing some of these changes. Skeptics, notably Republican Senator Marco Rubio, have questioned whether in this case the President has overstepped his authority.
Obama’s answer to this question was fairly direct: “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.” In other words, we’ve tried isolating Cuba and it hasn’t worked. It’s time to try engagement.
Not everyone agrees with this assessment, including some who see it as a gift to a regime with an abysmal human rights record. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said he feared it would do nothing to promote Democracy in Cuba, while Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey worried that it “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”
From the Cuban side, things look a bit different. The big reason the agreement makes sense is because it will help the country’s struggling economy, but it won’t much threaten the current president, Raul Castro.
Castro has consolidated power within the military and the Communist Party apparatus and is in a fairly strong position politically, says Amherst College professor Javier Corrales.
“Economically he’s very insecure,” Corrales said, “but politically he’s not feeling weak.”
That means he can embrace warmer relations with the United States and not worry too much about US efforts to undermine his regime.
How supportive is the US public?
For decades now, a majority of Americans have supported better diplomatic relations with Cuba. But the idea was vehemently opposed by the Cuban-American community, and particularly those driven out by Fidel Castro himself during and after the revolution. But the children of those first-generation Cuban-Americans don’t have the same politics, and neither do more recent Cuban immigrants. Today, even within the Cuban-American community, there’s substantial support to increase contacts and end the embargo.
Even so, public support may not have been as big a driver as tourist groups and others business interests, who see in Cuba a new and largely untapped market.
How much is going to change?
In Europe, lucky game show contestants can win all-expense paid vacations to Havana. That isn’t likely to happen anytime soon in the United States, since today’s agreement still blocks most casual tourism, and since the Cuban tourism industry probably isn’t ready for a massive influx. But it’s a reminder that without the embargo, Cuba might start to look less like a cold war enemy and more like a Caribbean destination.
Whatever effect the agreement has on the United States, it’s likely to be far smaller than its effect on Cuba. Cuba, after all, is a relatively poor country with a poorly functioning, state-controlled economy.
In the last few years, Raul Castro has tried to implement limited economic reforms, including allowing some small businesses to operate. But if increased trade with the United States becomes the linchpin for a real economic opening — of the kind that communist China undertook in the 1980s and 1990s — it could transform everyday life in Cuba.