Cuba – a step in the right direction

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Last week for the first time the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Cuban embargo. The U.S. for the first time in 25 years abstained in a U.N. General Assembly vote concerning the American embargo against Cuba. The resolution has received opposition votes from the U.S. each year in the past. Last month, President Obama issued a new policy directive that further advances our nation’s efforts to normalize our diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. 

It’s a major policy commitment—one which cements and expands changes announced by the White House in December 2014—and an ambitious move on the part of the exiting administration.

{mosads}It is also a large step in a long battle to end more than a half-century of trade embargo—one which has hurt both Cuba and the United States.

To help catch up for those lost years, the new directive lays out a strategic agenda that will open doors to bilateral cooperation across broad areas of mutual interest. It addresses diplomatic, agricultural, public health and environmental matters, and tackles other issues such as disaster preparedness and response, law enforcement, migration, and security and defense concerns.

In fact, according to the president, the directive “takes a comprehensive and whole-of-government approach to promote engagement with the Cuban government and people, and make our opening to Cuba irreversible.”

It is a policy shift that is long overdue.

While many U.S. media outlets reporting the directive latched onto a regulatory change that allows U.S. visitors to Cuba to bring back more than $100 worth of Cuban cigars and rum for personal use, that’s only a very small piece of the picture.

But a lot of that picture does involve the coveted products produced in Cuba and consumed here—and vice versa. That’s because in tandem with the new directive, the Treasury Department and Commerce Department have made regulatory changes that go far beyond suitcases full of cigars and rum: They have amended several regulations in ways that will help to ease major obstacles that have severely hobbled commercial activity between the two countries—especially in agricultural trade.

First, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has revised regulations to allow waivers of a restriction that has prohibited foreign vessels from entering U.S. ports to load or unload freight for 180 days after calling on a Cuban port. Until now, that restriction has effectively blocked Cuban agricultural products from entering the U.S. 

Secondly, OFAC also made changes to clarify that agricultural items such as pesticides and tractors that are authorized for export or re-export to Cuba are not subject to payment term restrictions—financial red tape that has seriously impeded trade in these items.

Those changes are good news for members of the agribusiness community. But these changes—and many others contained in the president’s directive—are still incremental. And as the president noted in announcing them: “Challenges remain.”

One of those challenges is momentum. Our nation sits now on the cusp between administrations. It is crucial that progress made in this one is not lost in the next. The new directive covers not only our trade with Cuba, but also other critically important items such as health and humanitarian transactions, medical research, educational exchange, and badly needed repairs to Cuban infrastructure. The next administration must pick up the ball and see these efforts to completion.

Another challenge is political will. Amid many pressing domestic concerns, policymakers often become nearsighted and fail to acknowledge that our international relationships—especially with our nearby neighbors—are closely interconnected with our domestic well-being.  Lifting the embargo with Cuba is not a contentious issue in the current presidential campaign. And this portends well for future actions toward full normalization. When mutual goals are served, both countries thrive.

And finally, we must conquer the challenge of perspective. We must look forward and advance policy goals that set our nations up for future success, rather than dwell on the policies of the past which have long outlived their purpose.

The current administration has done its part to set our nation on the path to normalized trade—and overdue reconciliation—with our Cuban neighbors 90 miles from our shores. It is now up to us to see that effort through.

Mr. Espy (Alphonso Michael Espy) served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Clinton. He is also a former U.S. Representative from the 2nd District of Mississippi. He currently works as a private sector attorney, counselor, and agricultural advisor.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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