ABC The Drum
The Castros are not getting any younger and America now has a prime opportunity to secure its interests in Cuba — that is, if Republicans don't stand in Barack Obama's way, writes .
As the Obama presidency continues the countdown to 2016, the question of legacy is increasingly raised in the media and academia.
While it is still difficult to ascertain whether history books will rate Obama's years in the White House as a relative success or failure, it is safe to say that his presidency will be deemed as highly consequential.
The notable domestic policies and programs have so far included the fiscal stimulus, the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare), measures to combat climate change, executive action on immigration, and few other wins such as promoting women's rights and those of the LGBT community.
On the foreign policy front, Obama shifted the focus to the Asia-Pacific, ended the Bush-era wars while stepping up drone warfare, and displayed a mixed response to the so-called Arab Spring and its aftermaths. His presidency began with a strong commitment to multilateralism and reaching out to US competitors and rivals, which has so far yielded varied results (see China, Russia, Iran).
The December 2014 announcement on normalising relations with Cuba, which came as a surprise to many, falls precisely in the latter category of restoring relations with old foes.
The Obama administration has been pushing for it behind the scenes over the past couple of years. The logic behind it is clear — the Cold War ended over a quarter of century ago and the policy of isolation failed to lead to a regime change in Cuba. Furthermore, since the Castros are not getting any younger, this is a good window of opportunity to secure US interests if power changes hands.
More importantly, the president has the majority of public opinion on his side. Some recent polls (including a ABC/Langer poll, and a CNN/ORC poll) have shown that the support for normalizing relations is almost 2:1 nationwide. The support is even higher when it comes to ending travel restrictions, and there is still a clear majority of Americans who want to see the embargo removed. Another important factor is the generational shift within the Cuban American voters, since the younger generations do not share their parents and grandparents' staunch anti-communist stances and tend to vote for Democrats.
Victor Hugo once remarked that no army can stop an idea whose time has come; with respect to Cuba, it seems that the conditions for policy change are ripe. However, while there is no proverbial army to stop it, there certainly is a majority Republican Congress. Upon taking control of both chambers, Republicans have announced that Cuba ranks high on a pre-prepared list of issues on which they will fight the President.
The motivation to do so is both ideological and political. First, many GOP heavyweights, such as the Speaker of the House John Boehner, have come out against revisiting relations on the grounds that Cuban regime is "a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies". They see normalisation and lifting of the embargo as a perverse reward to the government that does not grant freedom to its people.
According to the polls, Republican voters are split on these issues, while only the 'very conservative' wing of the party vehemently opposes the initiative.
There is also politics at play. One apparent explanation could be pure obstructionism and not wanting to let the Democratic president leave the office with a good scorecard. However, it goes deeper than that. Republican presidential hopefuls have already started preparing for the next primaries and they know that pandering to conservative Cuban Americans brings victory in Florida. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio have already expressed that they disagree with Obama's proposal, while Senator Rand Paul might have lost Florida when he backed the President last month.
Knowing that neither side is willing to back down, what is then the likely outcome of yet another standoff between the president and the Republicans in Congress? The first two articles of the US constitution clearly spell out the powers of legislative and executive branches. When it comes to foreign policy, the president is arguably a bit more powerful. Obama can use executive orders to direct the foreign policy bureaucracy to ease travel restrictions, re-establish diplomatic ties and expand trade in order to "hollow out the embargo". He can also use the symbolism of high-level meetings with his Cuban counterpart to set the agenda and further sway the public opinion.
In turn, we can expect the Congress to use its 'power of the purse' and deny funds to reopen consular offices in Cuba. In addition, the Senate majority has the power to obstruct the confirmation of a new ambassador. There is also a potential pushback on further loosening of the travel restrictions, and it is almost certain that the 114th Congress will not vote to formally repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which would lift the current trade embargo.
Many analysts have pointed to the historical analogy with the rapprochement, the legendary Cold War breakthrough in 1972, when President Nixon and Chairman Mao re-established relations after more than two decades of isolation. There is a widespread belief that "only Nixon" was able to achieve this; in other words, only an anti-communist hardliner could convince his party to a change of course.
Perhaps if a Republican president were to announce a turn in policy towards Cuba, the opposition would be less pronounced. Yet, Obama could still win this fight, as he seems to have picked the right timing.
This article was originally published at ABC The Drum