WASHINGTON—How does one end almost 54 years of hostility toward a next-door neighbour?
That’s about to become clear as the Obama administration and the communist government of Raul Castro move to normalize more than a half-century of bitter animosity between the United States and Cuba.
It won’t happen overnight. Some of the likely steps:
Restoring full diplomatic ties
While international relations can be subject to laws passed by Congress, the White House enjoys broad discretion in diplomatic recognition. An exchange of diplomatic notes between Washington and Havana would be enough to normalize diplomatic relations, but that must be preceded by agreement on a series of separate understandings that would govern those ties.
High-level discussions to reach those understandings will begin in late January in Havana as part of previously scheduled U.S.-Cuba immigration talks. The top U.S. diplomat for the Americas, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, will lead the administration’s delegation. Jacobson told reporters on Thursday that the process is in many ways “mechanical” and will not be contingent on reaching accords on areas of deep U.S. concern, notably Cuba’s human rights record.
Nor are comprehensive settlements of outstanding U.S. and Cuban legal claims against each other and private companies required for normalization, she said. President Barack Obama and others maintain, though, that improving human rights and resolving other contentious issues, including lawsuits, will remain key U.S. priorities moving forward.
Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed in 1961 but partially restored in 1977 with the creation of U.S. and Cuban interests sections staffed by diplomats in the countries’ respective capitals. Those facilities are technically under the authority of Switzerland, which serves as what is known as a “protecting power” for both the United States and Cuba in each other’s nation. Once full diplomatic relations are restored, those interests sections would be converted to embassies.
Reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana and nominating an ambassador
As with recognition, the U.S. Constitution gives the executive branch wide discretion in opening and closing diplomatic facilities. But Congress must approve money to pay for them, and Senate confirmation is required for ambassadorial nominations. Several senators opposed to the administration’s policy shift have threatened to withhold funding for an embassy in Havana and to block any nominee for ambassador. Since Congress has for 37 years funded the interests section in Havana and for its staff, who provide vital services to Americans and Cubans, administration officials do not believe Congress will block payments to convert the mission to an embassy. The State Department says it plans to use the building in which the current interests section is located, a six-story structure that served as the embassy from 1953 until 1961, and does not expect the change to cost significantly more than what is currently spent.
The ambassador post could be more problematic. A single senator can block a nomination. Administration officials expect that any nominee will face a difficult confirmation process but note that the functions of an ambassador are often carried out by a deputy chief of mission or charge d’affaires. The administration says it hopes to have the embassy open “within months” but that timetable will be dictated by the speed of the broader normalization effort.
Ending the U.S. embargo and removing the ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ designation
The executive branch does not have the power to abolish the 1963 embargo, but it can take steps to mitigate its effect. Ending the embargo would take an act of Congress, and administration officials admit they are not optimistic that will happen soon. Officials say, however, they believe an easing of sanctions will eventually create conditions in Cuba that will persuade opponents of normalization to vote in favour of ending the embargo.
In addition to the embargo, Cuba is subject to sanctions under other legislation, including its designation in 1982 as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” That designation restricts U.S. foreign assistance, bans defence exports and sales, puts controls over exports of dual-use items and sets out numerous financial and travel restrictions. Obama announced he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin a six-month review of the designation that is required to delist Cuba. Officials refuse to pre-judge the outcome of the review but acknowledge that the White House would not have ordered it without an eye on lifting the designation.
Cuba is also subject to sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act, the Helms-Burton Act and other legislation, all of which would require congressional approval to repeal but not necessarily to ease.
Easing sanctions short of ending the embargo
Don’t rush to Cuba to pick up cigars and rum just yet. The easing of trade, travel and currency restrictions announced on Wednesday will not take effect until the Commerce and Treasury Departments revise the regulations and publish the revisions in the Federal Register. That could take weeks, at least.
The administration says rules on visits to Cuba by Americans will be liberalized to allow for travel in categories that have in the past required special licenses from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Those categories include: family visits, official U.S. or foreign government business, journalism, research and professional meetings, educational and religious activities, performances, workshops, competitions and expeditions and humanitarian support. Specific licenses will also no longer be required for business related to telecommunications and Internet linkages with Cuba.
In addition, Americans with family in Cuba will now be allowed to send their relatives up to $2,000 every three months, up from $500, and Americans visiting Cuba will be allowed to legally import merchandise bought there with a value of up to $400, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol purchases. Those purchases will also be allowed to be made with credit and debit cards issued by U.S. banks.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.