On the 10th of March, the Senate approved Obama’s spending budget containing the first changes to the Cuban trade embargo in 5 years. It is important to note that these changes have not been made in law, but achieved by removing funding needed to enforce the requirements.

Changes included in the bill

Cuban-Americans will now be able to visit their immediate family members in Cuba once a year, and stay for as long as they wish. In 2004, the Bush Administration restricted Cuban-Americans from visiting the island to once every three years, and for a maximum of 14 days.

US citizens travelling to Cuba with the intent of selling agricultural or medical goods (exempt for humanitarian reasons since 2000), will now be able to apply for a general travel licence instead of them being granted on a case by case basis. Funding was also removed to enforce the requirement that Cuba must pay up front for any US goods prior to export.

Senators Bill Nelson of Florida, and Bob Menendez of New Jersey threatened to block the entire budget going through if clarification was not made regarding the changes in Cuban policy. Florida and New Jersey are key voting states with the highest percentages of persons with Cuban Ancestry in the US. Although historically vocal in their support for the embargo, Florida International University recently conducted a poll which found that 55% of Florida’s Cuban-Americans are against the continuing blockade. A majority for the first time since the poll was first conducted in 1991.

US Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, wrote letters to the senators assuring them that the changes made will not be interpreted in a way that makes a significant change to the current policy. The general travel licence will be restricted to a limited small class of businesses, and the requirement that Cuba must pay up front for any US goods prior to shipment will still be enforced. Given these assurances the two senators approved the bill. Geithner did not give similar assurances with regard to the relaxing of Cuban-Americans family travel restrictions.

Now that the bill has been passed, Geithner is facing new opposition for giving these assurances to the Senators. In particular by Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota commenting on 19th of March that the “commitments Secretary Geithner made to certain members of the Senate appear to interpret the law in a way that undermines the intent of Congress.”

During Obama’s election campaign, he made it clear that he will maintain the trade embargo on Cuba to promote democracy in the Communist state. He did however promise that “[he] will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island… It’s time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.”

Now that the bill has been passed, Obama has made true on his pledge regarding family travel however no change has been made with regard to remittances.

A brief history of the trade embargo

The history of the trade embargo shows the back and forth nature of US policy through the various administrations.

The general trade embargo forbidding US companies to trade with Cuba was first enforced by the Kennedy Administration in 1962, with travel restrictions (except under special circumstances) following in 1963. The Ford Administration introduced licences to trade with Cuba in 1974, and the first trip of American business people to the island. Carter failed to renew the travel restrictions imposed on US citizens visiting Cuba in 1977, and de-regulated the spending of US dollars in Cuba. During Reagan’s time in office, the restrictions were tightened once more to the levels of the 1960’s.

Bush Senior passed the Torricelli Act in 1992 which prohibited by law the travel of US citizens to Cuba, any family remittances, and of foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. A new sanction meant that any vessel that docked in Cuba, US or foreign, would not be allowed to dock in the US for 180 days. The Clinton Administration passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 which stated that non-US companies which traded with Cuba could now face legal action. In 2000 Clinton relaxed the embargo to allow trade of agricultural and medicinal goods for humanitarian reasons. The Bush Administration tightened the restrictions on Cuban-Americans family travel in 2004. Every year since 2000, there has been unsuccessful attempts to pass a bill lifting travel restrictions to Cuba.

Upcoming summit

At the upcoming Summit of the Americas the trade embargo will be impossible to avoid. Brazil’s foreign minister Celso Amorim requested an immediate end to the embargo maintaining that it would “certainly benefit the Cubans, it would even benefit US business, and it would be coherent with the policy of openness and dialogue.” John Hopkins University has estimated that the US loses around $2 billion worth of exports each year due to the blockade, not including possible revenue from tourism, and that it damages the Cuban economy by as much as $685 million annually. Furthermore, the Helms-Burton Act has been heavily criticised by Canada and the EU due to its extra-territorial nature. The summit will set the stage for Obama to reveal his own policy towards Cuba and the region in general.