A Change in the Tide: Obama’s Foreign Policy Goal to Renew Cuban-US Relations Sparks Domestic Challenges

BY MELISSA JORDON – The United States placed an embargo on Cuba in 1961. Over half a century later, on December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama ordered diplomatic relations be opened with Cuba as a result of a prisoner exchange negotiated with Raúl Castro and mediated by Pope Francis.[1] The executive order from the White House sparked a lot of controversy in Congress over old laws and approval of new laws governing the future relations with Cuba. This change in relations has ramifications for not only social relations with Cuba, but will impact economic policies, immigration policies, and trade/ travel restrictions between the two.

In February of this year, democrats and republicans submitted a bill governing new legislation for travel and trade with Cuba proposed in February 2015. However, the new law would lift the trade embargo, but it would not address any human rights laws or rights of property against the Cuban government.[2] At the same time, there have been calls to re-consider the favorable 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act that provided Cuban immigrants with more favorable protections than any other immigrant group.[3]

The new bill’s failure to address human rights issue strikes the most concern at home. The United States’ historical imperialist foreign policy has made human rights violations a sticking point for American foreign policy. However, the United States currently trades with most members of the WTO that do commit certain levels of human rights violations including China and Russia. Cuba is also a member of the WTO but does not enjoy any of the same privileges of trading with the United States. One of the main concerns for hesitancy in reforming relations with Cuba centers on these human rights concerns.

Maintaining a full embargo without diplomatic association is inconsistent with American diplomatic relations towards other countries with human rights issues and differing political systems. The United States has maintained trade relations and recognized the Communist Government of China, notorious for human rights conflicts.

This is evidenced in the China Trade Bill, of 2000 which states in Section 203, the U.S. policy towards trading with China would  “highlight in the United Nations Human Rights Commission and in other appropriate fora violations of human rights by foreign governments and to seek the support of other governments in urging improvements in human rights practices [,]” but that provision does not create a contingency on the right to free and fair access to trade or a commitment to human rights over trade.[4]

Additionally, the semi-democratic Russian Federation commits human rights violations daily that are a constant point of tension between the United States and Russia, but trade relations and diplomatic ties have remained open. The likelihood of passing the new bill – lifting the embargo restrictions – is slim to none but the point is to get a discussion going. Instead it will likely end up in an appropriations bill so that it will sneak through, buried under several other budgetary discussions.[5]

What then, can explain why the United States has held Cuba to higher human rights standards all this time? Because the Cuban people are American’s “favorites.” Cuba is separated from the United States by only 90 miles of sea, the United States lost Cuba to Communism during the Cold War, and the Cuban-American population in the United States has historically controlled US policy towards Cuba as they are the most vocal, particularly in South Florida.

The main point: Cuba hits close to home. This is reflected in the 1966 Act that views Cubans leaving for the United States as self-imposed political exiles in favor of democracy.[6] Part of President Johnson’s move towards enacting the legislation was on the basis that any Cuban crossing into the United States would be another pro-democracy vote for a free, capitalist world.[7]

Now, the lifting of trade embargo and travel restrictions undercuts the importance and relevance of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Cuban Americans in Congress and others involved in forming immigration policy, now see the law being abused by several Cuban immigrants who abuse the American system and then flee to Cuba to avoid prosecution. The divide between old and new immigrants over the policy continues to complicate matters. The older immigrants viewed the law as protecting individuals who chose to leave Cuba and were granted greater protections because there was no choice or option to return to their families, their job, or their life in Cuba.

Now, more recent immigrants, favor the blanket policy to allow their family to come in and allow them to travel between as legal residents of the United States and maintain their Cuban nationality. The request for revision comes from Miami, Florida, where one Commissioner of the request for revision, poses the question: “How can someone claim to be politically persecuted, have a special path to residency and citizenship, and a year and a day after being here travel back to Cuba?”[8] The renewed talks between the American and Cuban leader, along with the law and decision making bodies of the United States are in for a rough ride.


[1] Peter Baker, U.S. to Restore Full Relations With cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility, NY Times, (Dec. 17, 2014),  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/world/americas/us-cuba-relations.html.

[2] Senators Introduce Bill to Lift Cuba Embargo, Reuters ( Feb. 12, 2015), http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/12/us-usa-cuba-congress-idUSKBN0LG2DQ20150212.

[3] Lizette Alvarez, Law Favoring Cuban Arrivals is Challenged, NY Times (Feb. 1, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/law-favoring-cuba-arrivals-is-challenged.html?_r=0.

[4] China Trade Bill, Pub. L. No. 106-286, §203, 114 Stat. 878 (2000).

[5] Senators Introduce Bill to Lift Cuba Embargo

[6] Javier Arteaga, The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966: More than Forty Years Later a Proposal for the Future, 3 FIU L. R. 509, 514 (2008).

[7] Id. at 514

[8] Law Favoring Cuban Arrivals is Challenged

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