Cuba, What's Next: It's All About the Regs

In this Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014 photo, Michel Salgado drives his 1957 Mercury Monterey convertible along the Malecon in Havana,
In this Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014 photo, Michel Salgado drives his 1957 Mercury Monterey convertible along the Malecon in Havana, Cuba. After U.S. car sales were banned in Cuba in 1959, Cubans have been have been forced to patch together Fords, Chevrolets and Chryslers that date back to before Fidel Castro's revolution, which can make it appear like the country is stuck in a 1950's time warp. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

Just about the time President Barack Obama and his team were at the end of their secret negotiations with the Cuban government that would lead to historic changes to the half-century old U.S. embargo, the insipid song "It's All About the Bass" seemed to be everywhere -- on the radio, piped into stores, even on the TV show "The Voice." An ear-worm of a song, my hope is that the White House officials who crafted the executive actions announced on December 17th have a slightly altered version of it ringing in their heads now as they sit down to implement them: "It's all about the regs."

The success of the President's plan to adapt a policy that, for over five decades, has failed to achieve its goals of protecting human rights and forcing the collapse of the famously autocratic Castro brothers' (Fidel and Raúl) regime hinges on the regulations developed in the bowels of the Commerce and Treasury Departments.

That's because since the unironically named Cuba Democracy Act of 1992 and the Libertad Act of 1996, the embargo is law, requiring an act of Congress to lift it. What President Obama announced in December was a series of executive actions intended to amend the embargo without going to Congress to have it lifted entirely. The success of actions on everything from the expansion of general travel licenses (to 12 new categories), to the sale of telecommunications equipment to the island, to the use of U.S. credit cards on the island will depend on how the regulations are written and interpreted by the Commerce and Treasury departments.

The Devil (or Angel) Is in the Details Sure, after all the excitement of (whether you agree with it or not) one of the most important U.S.-policy initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean in decades, writing regulations is pretty boring, in-the-weeds stuff.

But those bureaucratic, turgid, legalese-laden memos will matter for three related reasons:

First, many of the proposed reforms will depend on the U.S. private sector taking up the initiative. Risk-averse businesses will only do this if the regulations are sufficiently broad and clear. An earlier effort in 2009 by the Obama administration to try to pry open the telecommunications sector in Cuba by granting -- what turned out in the regulations -- to be very narrow and impractical exceptions to the embargo rendered the effort stillborn. As a result of the strict regulatory zeal of Commerce and Treasury, not one telecommunications company ended up taking up the challenge to help connect Cuban citizens to the Internet, despite an initial flurry of interest.

Second, in his announcement of the reforms, the President emphasized that these adjustments were intended to do what the embargo has not: improve the conditions for human rights and independent civic action. Their capacity to do that rests on tailoring the regulations to the President's goals. Changes such as expanding purposeful travel to the island for U.S. citizens, allowing for the export to the emerging non-state entrepreneurial sector and permitting U.S. travelers to bring back $400 worth of goods -- with only $100 of those to be alcohol and tobacco -- are intended to expand the scope for economic and political independence in Cuba's totalitarian system. Those pockets of autonomy had already started as a result of the administration's lifting restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island and reinstatement of Bill Clinton-era people-to-people travel to Cuba.

Those efforts ran parallel to a series of modest, but real, reforms that allowed Cuban citizens to start up their own small enterprises in 300 pre-determined categories. The result has been more than 500,000 new private start ups, most of which have received their capital and inputs from relatives across the Florida Straits. If the regulations are written correctly to reflect the spirit of the President's actions, this will expand by potentially allowing wholesale producers to sell directly to these independent businesses and agricultural cooperatives, and providing a means for them to sell small amounts in the U.S. market.

Third, since Obama's changes were only executive actions, they can be rolled back by a future president. So, should now Florida Senator Marco Rubio who has led the charge against these changes be elected president in 2016 he could return U.S. policy to its punitive embargo policies simply with a signature. That is, unless the U.S. private sector has already become vested in these reforms. In that case, a future President Rubio (or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or Chris Christie) is likely to find both a more vibrant and vocal independent civil society than has existed since the 55 years that the Castros came to power and a U.S. business community that will not want to see its growing market share wiped out.

And come 2016, that business community will likely be much louder and powerful than the dwindling Cuban-American community in Rubio's home state that has supported the embargo. According to a series of polls, more than 60 percent of U.S. citizens support the President's changes, and even 52 percent of Cuban-Americans under 65 support them, a startling show of generational change in South Florida's once-hard line electorate.

The regulators who will write the most important changes in U.S. policy toward the region are, by nature, risk averse. They are public servants who will want to hew to a safe 50-year-old policy and avoid retribution from any potential Republican president who, for narrow partisan and electoral reasons, may want to overturn the regulations and may take the scalps of those who are seen as accomplices to Obama's policy shift.

Ensuring that the President's goals are met and that U.S. policy in the hemisphere has a long-overdue course correction will mean that all of us who want change in Cuba and in U.S. policy pay attention to what emerges from Commerce and Treasury. They will ultimately determine the success or failure of these historic policy initiatives.

Because as singer Meghan Trainor says (ok not entirely) in her catchy dance hit "It's all about the regs, the regs, it's all about the regs." I, for one, am hoping that the White House officials are quietly humming this ditty to themselves. If they don't, the December announcements will amount to good intentions, but a dead letter.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here. If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to (subject line: "90 Miles").