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U.S.-Cuba Relations: What Was Accomplished in 2015, What Remains to Be Done

While major hurdles have been cleared with the Obama administration's executive actions, much remains to be done.
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In this photo taken through a window, Cuban videographers film the U.S. flag from a crane after it was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. The Stars and Stripes rose over the newly reopened U.S. Embassy after a half-century of broken diplomatic relations. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this photo taken through a window, Cuban videographers film the U.S. flag from a crane after it was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. The Stars and Stripes rose over the newly reopened U.S. Embassy after a half-century of broken diplomatic relations. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The December 17, 2014 announcement by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro paved the way for change after more than five decades of an unjust and damaging policy. Since then, significant changes have been made to the U.S. regulations on Cuba travel and trade, but the goal of the policy still remains the same.

As we celebrate the one-year anniversary of the December 17th announcement, it is time to reflect on what we've accomplished in the last year and, most importantly, what actions we need to take moving forward to end the embargo and normalize relations between the United States and Cuba once and for all.

A longer-form version of this article appears on the Latin America Working Group's website, in addition to a timeline infographic highlighting some of the major moments in U.S-Cuba relations over the last year.

What has changed since December 17, 2014?

Over the last year, President Obama's executive actions have led to some comprehensive reforms that far surpass any policy changes made in the past five decades. As a result of the Obama administration's plans to "chart a new course" with Cuba, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba are now a reality. The United States and Cuba have formally converted their interests sections to embassies and the U.S. and Cuban governments are participating in ongoing high-level dialogues on a broad range of issues. As a result of these dialogues, the United States and Cuba have signed their first direct cooperative agreement on environmental protection and marine conservation.

The United States government has made substantial regulatory changes in travel, trade, and telecommunications, including the expansion of travel under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba already authorized by law. Another major legal change took place with the official removal of Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

In April, the United States and Cuba participated in the 7th Summit of the Americas, marking the first time the leaders of the two countries were both in attendance. On the sidelines of the event, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro sat down together for the first face-to-face meeting between the U.S. and Cuban leaders in almost 60 years.

What remains to be changed for normalized relations to be accomplished with Cuba?

Although major changes have taken place over the last year, many obstacles to normalized relations between the United States and Cuba still remain. The most pressing issue that must be addressed is the U.S. trade embargo and travel ban on Cuba, which still requires legislative action to be legally lifted. While travel restrictions have been loosened, U.S. citizens still can't travel freely to Cuba --or vacation in Cuba-- as they can to any other country in the world. The complete removal of travel restrictions will require an act of Congress.

Several aspects of U.S. policy towards Cuba will also need to be reconsidered for normalization to occur, particularly government-funded programs aimed at regime change in Cuba. In spite of the changes taking place in U.S.-Cuba relations, as well as the apparent failure of clandestine USAID-funded programs, the U.S. Congress continues to appropriate funds for similar "democracy promotion" programs. The U.S. government also continues to allocate U.S. tax-payer funds to the Martís broadcast programming, in spite of critiques that the broadcasting targeted at the Cuban people is ineffective, costly, and contradictory to new policy goals.

Various differential laws for Cuban migration also remain in place, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, the "Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy," and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program, also known as the "Cuban Doctors Program." The Obama administration says there are no plans to alter migration policies regarding Cuba, though discussions of the topic have garnered attention in the wake of a humanitarian crisis of thousands of Cuban migrants stranded in Central America while attempting to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

In addition, the following obstacles also remain in place: nearly 9,000 property claims against Cuba have been registered with the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission with a collective value of billions of dollars, the Cuban government has presented claims against the United States for damages inflicted by the embargo, U.S. financial and banking regulations continue to discourage U.S. engagement with Cuba, the United States and Cuba continue to request the return of fugitives to "pursue justice" for alleged crimes, and Guantanamo is still occupied by the United States.

What can we do in 2016?

The Latin America Working Group has been working to encourage the Obama administration to do more within the president's executive power, including providing general licenses for individual people-to-people trips. However, moving forward with executive action, there is the potential risk that a future president could easily reverse the policy changes. Candidates in the 2016 presidential election have already begun to take strong stances on U.S. policy toward Cuba, and some have openly stated that they would reverse all of the progress made. Potential Republican presidential nominees Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, both of Cuban heritage, have repeatedly denounced the decision to move toward normalized relations with Cuba, as has former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Ultimately, the legal authority to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba rests within the U.S. Congress. Our focus on Congress will need to be long term, but we've already begun to make progress. Inroads have been made with the Republican Party, and several bills have been introduced by Republicans in the House and the Senate that would end the ban on travel to Cuba and remove many restrictions on trade with Cuba. Taken together, these bills would effectively chip away at the embargo.

However, several other legal changes will need to take place to completely normalize relations with Cuba. The legal issues that must be addressed by the executive branch and Congress are expansive, but among the most salient are: the Helms-Burton Act, the Trading with the Enemy Act, and the Cuban Democracy Act.

While major hurdles have been cleared with the Obama administration's executive actions, much remains to be done. In 2016, LAWG looks forward to collaborating further with coalition partners and grassroots activists to advocate for holistic policy change and an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba.