How Barack Obama Can End the Economic Sanctions Against Cuba

This post originally appeared at Opera Mundi.

Since 1996 and the adoption of the Helms-Burton law, only the US Congress is able to lift the siege against Havana. But President Obama can compel Congress to act...

Since the adoption of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 -- itself a legal aberration because of its extraterritorial and retroactive components -- the President of the United States no longer has the executive power to put an end to the anachronistic, cruel and counter-productive state of economic siege against Cuba -- this according to Barack Obama himself. Indeed, now, only Congress can put a stop a hostile policy that is condemned by the vast majority of the international community, the American public, the Florida Cuban community and especially the US business world.

The US Chamber of Commerce, representing the business community and nearly three million companies, has urged political leaders, in both the government and Congress to adopt a new policy vis-à-vis Havana. According to its president Thomas Donohue, "it is time to eliminate long-established political barriers and erase our differences. It is in the interest of the American people and the American business community to do so." (1)

In his historic speech of December 17, 2014, announcing the restoration of relations with Cuba after more than a half century of rupture, the US president called upon Congress to opt for a new approach toward Havana. "I encourage Congress to engage in a serious and honest debate about the lifting of the embargo," said Obama.(2)

The solution? Allow ordinary tourists to visit Cuba

In fact, President Obama has a very simple way to speed up the end of the economic siege that affects all classes and all sectors of Cuban society, and which remains the principal obstacle to the development of the island. It is sufficient to allow US citizens to travel to Cuba as ordinary tourists. Indeed, today, US citizens can travel to any other country in the world, including China, Vietnam and North Korea, but the government still does not allow them to discover this island in the Caribbean.

By breaking this barrier between the two peoples, Barack Obama would, according to estimates, see more than one million American tourists travel to Cuba in the first year. This figure could grow to more than five million per year after five years because Cuba, for obvious historical and geographical reasons, is a natural destination for Americans. A huge market would open up for American airlines, the transportation industry and travel agencies, not to mention other mass tourism-related sectors. To date, only 90,000 US citizens - other than Cuban-Americans - visit Cuba every year for business, academic, cultural, humanitarian or sporting reasons, under licenses granted by the State Department.(3)

The massive influx of tourists to Cuba would clearly benefit the Cuban economy, whose resources are largely dependent on this sector, but it would also benefit the US economy. Indeed, US agricultural producers would be the big winners in a reinvigorated tourism between the two nations and would be asked to help feed the millions of new visitors, since Cuba imports most of its food commodities.

With the authorization of conventional tourism to Cuba, the business community would certainly put pressure on members of Congress, whose political careers depend largely on the private funding they receive from companies, to permanently end the economic sanctions against Cuba. Indeed, to not do so, they deprive themselves of a natural market of 11.2 million inhabitants and potentially 10 million tourists from around the world. Cuba just surpassed the three million tourists mark in 2014.

First, President Obama could give directions to the Treasury Department not to prosecute US citizens who travel to Cuba outside of the administratively defined framework. Indeed, the financial penalties imposed on offenders who dare to travel without permission, through Canada or Mexico, are quite dissuasive.(4) This would allow more flexible tourist travel to Cuba and - above all - repair a legal anomaly in that the ban violates the US Constitution which protects the right of its citizens to travel freely.

Thus, Barack Obama has sufficient flexibility to bring the United States Congress to end the economic sanctions that elicit the opprobrium of the international community and isolate the US in Latin America. The Cuban people, but also the American people, would be the major beneficiaries of a reestablishment of normal economic, commercial and financial relations between the two nations.


Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg

Doctor of Iberian and Latin American Studies at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, Salim Lamrani is a senior lecturer at the University of La Réunion, and a journalist specializing in relations between Cuba and the United States.

His new book is Cuba, the Media, and the Challenge of Impartiality, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2014. Foreword by Eduardo Galeano; translated by Larry R. Oberg.
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1. RTL, « La Chambre de commerce américaine souhaite une nouvelle relation USA-Cuba », May 30, 2014 ; AFP, « La relation USA-Cuba doit changer maintenant, selon le président de la Chambre de commerce américaine », May 30, 2014.
2. The White House, « Barack Obama's Speech: Charting a New Course of Era », December 17, 2014. (site consulted December 17, 2014)
3. Matt Beardmoredec, "How Travel to Cuba May Change", The New York Times, December 18, 2014.
4. Salim Lamrani, Etat de siège: les sanctions économiques des Etats-Unis contre Cuba, Paris, Editions Estrella, 2011.

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