Initially, we expect President-elect Obama to do exactly what he said he would do during the campaign — loosen or lift restrictions on the ability of Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba and to send money to family members. We also expect that Obama will initiate additional diplomatic contacts within already-established bilateral channels, for example on migration, narcotics and military issues.
While Cuba is unlikely to be a top priority for the incoming administration, these changes could occur fairly quickly given that these were promises that Obama made during the campaign. Latin America experts, including individuals close the Obama campaign, suggest that any other changes for example restoring the people-to-people contacts and travel exchanges that existed during the Clinton administration would be put off until later. The success or failure of initial diplomatic contacts could help determine how quickly the administration decides to act on broader initiatives.
Congress is unlikely to alter Cuba sanctions in any significant way next year, at least not without a clear signal from the President. Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid are aware of divisions in the caucus on Cuba policy and Senator Reid appears to have little appetite for a dramatic policy change. (This prediction could change were certain changes to occur in Cuba.) That said, Members of Congress will likely introduce multiple bills to end the embargo, end the travel ban, and facilitate trade by allowing direct banking and removing Bush administration restrictions on payments for agricultural goods. Of those efforts, Congress could move early to reverse the cash in advance rule governing U.S. exports to Cuba. NFTC/USA*Engage staff are participating in meetings of the Cuba legislative working groups and plan to set up meetings next year with relevant hill staff.
Update on recent NFTC efforts
Over the past several months, NFTC and USA*Engage have been working to encourage the next administration to take a new approach to U.S. Cuba policy. Earlier this month, NFTC and USA*Engage spearheaded a business community letter to President-elect Obama, which was signed by ten other associations including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Business Roundtable, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The letter called for the eventual end to all sanctions as well as the immediate removal of travel restrictions on American citizens and the temporary suspension of certain trade restrictions to allow American companies to help Cuba rebuild from the recent hurricanes.
Also this month, NFTC Vice President Jake Colvin released a paper, The Case for a New Cuba Policy, in which he suggests that changing Cuba policy could have broader foreign policy, national security and domestic political benefits. Drawing on the advice of former Treasury Department officials, he also highlights the broad discretion that the Executive Branch retains to change the restrictions on travel and trade.
Largely as a result of these efforts, NFTC has enjoyed good press coverage on Cuba policy in recent weeks, including in the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times (twice), Miami Herald (twice), U.S. News and World Report, CQ, Reuters and Inter-Press Service.