Will Immigration Blowback Affect the Chances for Cuba Reforms?

November 21, 2014

We couldn’t watch the President’s immigration reform speech last night without wondering what we could learn from his action – and the overreaction to it. What will happen if Mr. Obama also uses his executive power to make decisive changes in Cuba policy?

Here’s our take.

Get ready for a flood of bogus questions about presidential power. Immigration opponents hit hard at whether President Obama even had the authority to implement the reform program he announced last night. But these arguments were met with slam dunk responses firmly grounded in Supreme Court findings, and the fact that every president since Eisenhower — including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush —  has used his presidential power to defer the deportations of immigrants a total of 39 times in the intervening 60 years.

The President retains broad authority to change policy toward Cuba. The World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act, the law on which the Cuba embargo is based, is applied by a discretionary act of the President on an annual basis.  While Congress codified elements of our sanctions policy under Helms-Burton, legal analyses by authorities including Bob Muse (writing here in Americas Quarterly), Hogan Lovells, and others make clear the President and his appointees, such as the Treasury Secretary, can make big changes in the policy based on powers they already have.

For example, President George W. Bush exercised that power by curtailing mercilessly travel by Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island, putting a damper on legal U.S. farm exports to feed the Cuban people, and authorizing the program to lure Cuban doctors from their foreign postings.

President Obama has also taken executive action on Cuba before. In 2009, he restored the right of the diaspora community to travel to Cuba and provide financial support to their families, and in 2011 he reopened people-to-people travel. Presidents do have the power to act.

There will be phony suggestions about upstaging the Congress. After six years of gridlock that blocked legislation on immigration reform, critics blasted the administration for fouling the chances for a bipartisan law to emerge from Congress.  However, as John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, the President is being traditional, not radical, in authorizing changes in the enforcement of immigration laws. As Thomas Mann writes for Brookings, “The cost of such unrelenting opposition and gridlock is that policymaking initiative and power inevitably flow elsewhere – to the executive and the courts.”

Time and again, an aggressive faction within Congress has tried repeatedly to repeal, resist, and delay actions taken within the discretion of the President – such as revising the rules for travels and remittances – or by blocking his nominees for Cuba-related and non-Cuba related foreign policy jobs.  Until the overdue debate begins on repealing Helms-Burton, the President knows that any far-sighted action he takes to modernize Cuba policy he will be taking alone.

He knows and we know what he can and should do: expand travel and remittances from the U.S. to Cuba, stop punishing foreign companies for doing legal business with Cuba’s government, remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, expand bilateral engagement in areas like the environment, and take the steps required to free Alan Gross.

In his masterful article in Americas Quarterly, “U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?,” Robert Muse, a sanctions law specialist, lays out the legal basis for ending most of the counter-productive punishments inflicted on Cuba’s people by our government.  Mr. Obama’s power to act is not in doubt.

Will he do it?  To date the president has made modest but useful changes in the policy. There are ample reasons – substantive and political – for him to do more.  But Cuba has never been a high priority for his administration, and, after the upheavals prompted by the deal that freed Sgt. Bergdahl and his immigration speech, we can imagine that gun-shy White House advisers will counsel Mr. Obama not to do anything big on Cuba now.

Nevertheless, the climate around Cuba reforms has changed for the better this year, and we are also heartened by what Senator Marco Rubio said after his exchange with Tony Blinken at his confirmation hearing: “I am very concerned that President Obama’s nominee to be John Kerry’s deputy at the Department of State passed up several opportunities today to categorically rule out the possibility of unilateral changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba.”

We hope the President goes bold and acts soon.  We don’t expect a nationwide address – or that the networks would cover it if he did (they aired “The Biggest Loser,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Bones” instead of his immigration speech).

But bold action by President Obama would enable U.S.-Cuba relations to move forward, he’d get great coverage in the history books, and it’s exactly the right thing for him to do.

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No Introduction

May 9, 2014

“Let me now introduce someone who needs no introduction.”

It is a weird custom of the Washington windbag to follow sentences like this with a lengthy introduction of the next speaker.

Normally, this is pointless, since that person is most often well-known to everyone within the sound of the speaker’s voice, but the introduction is made nonetheless.

In that spirit, we’d like to begin the News Blast this week with some introductions of our own.

Let’s start with Assistant Secretaries of State Roberta Jacobson and Tom Malinowski who, as McClatchy reported, testified this week against imposing punitive economic sanctions on Venezuela.

Jacobson, who spoke for State’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that hitting Venezuela’s government with sanctions as a tactic to cool its political crisis “would serve to reinforce a narrative of the Venezuelan government standing up to the United States — rather than the Venezuelan people standing up for themselves.”

Malinowski, speaking for State’s Human Rights Bureau, added on sanctions:  “They work in some places, they don’t work everywhere. Timing is extremely important.”

These top State Department policymakers who oppose sanctions on Venezuela should discuss their “counterproductive” effects with the people who maintain our fifty-plus year old embargo on the government and people of Cuba.

While we’re at it, let’s also introduce the State Department policymakers who track Cuba on the fight against illegal drugs and terrorism.

In March, when the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs released a report giving high marks to Cuba’s counter-narcotics efforts, it said “Cuba demonstrates increasing willingness to apprehend and turn over U.S. fugitives and to assist in U.S. judicial proceedings by providing documentation, witnesses and background for cases in U.S. state and federal Courts.”

Yet, barely one month later, when the Bureau of Counterterrorism released the 2013 Report on the State Sponsors of Terror, it said “The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States” to justify keeping Cuba on the list.

Different fugitives, we know.  But, shouldn’t these guys talk?

Our last introduction is for Secretary of State, John Kerry, who gave a speech about the importance of entrepreneurship at a gathering of the Council of the Americas this week.  At the end, he zeroed in on Cuba.

Secretary Kerry is worried that the Cuban people will “continue to be left behind (economically) as the rest of the hemisphere advances,” unless more can be done to strengthen “the emerging micro-entrepreneurial sector in Cuba.”

There is no shortage of ideas for stimulating more economic activity in Cuba.  One came from Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, a staunch conservative and an anti-communist.  In March, Becker, who died this week, wrote: “It is time to end the embargo on the export and import of goods and services between the United States and Cuba. The Cuban people will benefit almost immediately.”

Also this week, the Boston Globe, Secretary Kerry’s hometown newspaper, made the political case for economic engagement with Cuba:

“There’s a reason why the United States doesn’t normally cut all ties to countries with repressive regimes. Economic engagement can be as powerful, or more powerful, a force for change than isolation. It doesn’t erase tensions with offending regimes, but rather puts more pressure on them. It expresses to the people living under the regime a desire for cooperation; opportunities to better understand each other; and a closer look at American-style freedoms and democracy.”

Despite these powerful arguments — that ending economic sanctions would provide Cubans with greater economic opportunity and the chance for greater freedoms, just as Secretary Kerry said he wanted in his speech — there’s a catch.   To accomplish these goals, we’d have to introduce him to the same person who kept Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terror List and who will not advocate publicly for increased travel and trade opportunities for Americans and Cubans.

By now, we’re sure you’re on to us.  There is a reason the Venezuela sanctions people don’t need an introduction to the Cuba Sanctions people, or the officials tracking drug fugitives to the policy makers who keep the terror list, or the supporters of microenterprise to the supporters of economic sanctions.

They’re all the same guys.  A lot of them smart and really good people.

It is the problem that needs no introduction, familiar to all within the sound of our voice.

Until our leaders confront the hardliners in Congress and the political culture that keeps these irrational, inconsistent, and ineffective policies in place, they’ll just go on behaving like people who’ve never met.

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