It seems almost absurd to look for the impact on Cuba policy on the morning after an election that spoke so sweepingly to economic issues.
But that’s our job.
The Obama Administration, Congressional Democrats, and Congressional Republicans – especially those now in charge in the House – all have to come to terms with a new landscape. It’s not hard to see that their policy work will center on job creation and the federal budget – and not on foreign policy, much less Latin America, much less Cuba.
As the current Congressional session wound down, the clock ran out on the main pro-engagement initiative regarding Cuba, which was the bill to end travel restrictions. It became clear that if a change in policy were to occur it would be not through legislation but rather through Executive action. Now, after the election, that is where we remain.
It is an open secret that the Administration wrote new regulations to liberalize non-tourist travel last summer, then failed to implement them out of political timidity.
My preference would be to end all travel restrictions regardless of Cuban behavior, but recent Cuban behavior adds a wrinkle to the discussion because President Obama has pegged his policies to change in Cuba. Raul Castro’s government is not creating a market economy or ending one-party socialism, but it is releasing political prisoners and embarking on economic policies that will expand the private sector. If President Obama doesn’t respond to incremental changes in Cuba with incremental changes of his own, his offer will at some point become a dead letter, and idea of constructive influence in Cuba (apart from unlimited Cuban-American travel) will be empty.
So the first new variable in the post-election equation is an old one, and it has to do with the Administration’s spine.
The second variable is in Congress, where Florida has sent Marco Rubio, a real class act, to the Senate, and where Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will now chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. We know that they will hold the line on Cuba sanctions; what remains to be seen is whether they want to change current policies, and if so, how. With a Democratic Administration and Senate, new Cuba legislation is not a simple proposition. However, they can cajole the Administration on specific aspects of the policy.
Which brings us back to variable #1, making it all the more pivotal.