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End of the embargo

For the second time in a month, President Barack Obama has exercised decisive leadership through executive action. Each directive addressed one of the two structural impediments in the U.S. – Latin America relationship. The first, of course, was immigration. The second is lifting sanctions on Cuba. With the stroke of a pen, Obama’s change in travel, business, and financial policies, the restoration of diplomatic relations, and the removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List has effectively ended nearly 55 years of Cuba sanctions policy.  The embargo is effectively over. 

Yes, congressionally mandated sanctions still stand, waiting to be formally overturned by a gridlocked Congress, but practically speaking Cuba will no longer suffer the curse of over a half century of failed U.S. policy.  For all these years, the embargo served as the gift of a lifetime for the Castros, allowing them to blame all of Cuba’s woes on the United States. Now that excuse is gone; the impoverished conditions and lack of freedom that plague the lives of most Cubans can only be the fault of their leaders. 

{mosads}The ever-smaller, yet still noisy, pro-embargo crowd in this country will surely protest these changes, accusing the president of “giving in” to the Castros. They are wrong. With the U.S. sanctions out of the way, the conversation can turn away from U.S. sanctions policy to fully focus on a half century of dictatorship and repression. The international community – which normalized relations with Cuba long ago – can now openly encourage a democratic Cuba. And isn’t that the whole point? 

The president’s request to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror list has a plethora of benefits. Most tangibly for the United States is the re-legitimization of this important list. For years Cuba sat in the company of only three other countries: Syria, Sudan, and Iran. The Castros are dictators, but they are not the same brand of evil as Bashar al Assad, Omar al Bashir or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For U.S. foreign policy, it is important that this list carry clout and reflect real threats to national security. 

For Cuba, the implication of a list that for decades impeded most private and multilateral financial institutions from doing business with the island has been devastating. The president’s actions today allow American financial institutions to work with Cuban ones. Humanitarian investment is no longer capped, and the amount of money that can be sent in the form of remittances has quadrupled. These changes will be instrumental to the development of Cuba.  Any visitor to the island immediately sees the desperate need for access to financial know-how and infrastructure capital. Better roads and access to capital does not just benefit the regime; it benefits the people of Cuba. 

America was long ready for this change.  The Atlantic Council’s poll released earlier this year found that the president has political support from Americans on both sides of the aisle for normalizing relations. The poll reported that substantial majorities supported removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terror, coordinating on issues of mutual concern, and allowing telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba. It also found that the strongest proponents of this move are voters in Florida, historically those most invested in Cuba policy. The president’s executive order will facilitate movement on all of these issues, and will be supported by the restoration of diplomatic relations. 

It would be a mistake to see the positive effect of these changes solely through a bilateral lens.  Rather it can have profound implications for the US relationship with a fast-transforming region. In the last decade, trade between the United States and Latin America has tripled; student exchanges are on the rise; and Latin culture is hot. Democracy has largely taken hold in the region, economies are growing, and innovation is booming. Strengthening our relationships with these countries is a strategic opportunity.  Even our closest Latin allies repeatedly advised us to ‘fix’ our Cuba policy; the Cuba embargo placed a boulder-sized pebble in the shoe of U.S.-Latin American relations. It is a relief to have it removed, to walk comfortably together towards a more fully democratic region. 

The executive action taken on Cuba is a demonstration of policy catching up to politics, public opinion, and common sense. Felicidades, Mr. President. 

Schechter is director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.

Tags Barack Obama

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