A year ago, when President Obama used his executive authority to make the biggest changes in U.S.-Cuba policy in fifty years, the idea that this sudden and satisfying leap forward toward engagement and reconciliation with Cuba could succeed seemed almost too good to be true.
Even if U.S. and Cuban diplomats -- who mysteriously mastered the ability to talk to each other without resorting threats or conflict -- were able to keep talking and making progress, Cold Warriors and Cuban American embargo supporters could still goad Congress to use its power of the purse to reverse every key decision the President made to expand travel, trade, and diplomacy itself.
One year later, Congress has reverted to type and our diplomats have risen to the occasion.
The Congressional threat was real. Until Tuesday night, it was actively considering a storm of legislative riders -- to shut down new flights and ferry service, to stop telecommunications exports, to nix new rules making it easier to spend U.S. dollars in Cuba, and more -- restrictions the U.S. House had gathered to include in the appropriations measure to keep the lights on in Washington until September of next year.
But, Wednesday morning, we learned that every measure to reverse the President's policies on Cuba was forced out of that mammoth budget measure in a compromise cobbled together by the Congressional leadership. The House and Senate are expected to pass the federal budget on Thursday and Friday respectively and go home for the holidays without scuttling what the President has been trying to accomplish on Cuba all year.
On Wednesday evening, there was more good news. The Associated Press reported that the U.S. and Cuba have reached an understanding that will allow carriers to resume regularly scheduled commercial flights within months. Based on Cuban and U.S. sources the AP says a formal deal will be announced in within hours or days.
Travel isn't everything, but it's hard to overestimate its importance in the context of U.S.-Cuba relations. Travel has enabled Cuban families across the Florida Strait to reconcile. It has demystified the Cuban experience and mindset for thousands of visitors from the U.S. It has helped to fill the coffers of cuentapropristas, the self -- employed Cubans who can profit from the tourist trade. And it is the hook for a growing number of U.S. businesses who now have a stake in lifting the ban on tourist travel and the trade embargo itself.
With the threat of Congressional budgetary restrictions on the right of Americans to visit Cuba receding until (at least) September 2016, and commercial aviation cleared for take-off, progress on reconciliation with Cuba can proceed at an accelerating pace.
Last year, Cubans called the diplomatic breakthrough a miracle performed by St. Lazarus on December 17th -- a day he is venerated on the island. Once again, on the eve of December 17th 2015 diplomacy prevailed, and the Congress, having dismounted its legislative riders, has set a course to go home for the holidays, leaving the President's policy intact. A miracle.