The Obama administration’s decision to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism became final on Friday, 45 days after it was announced, partly because Congress failed to move to block the change.
While removal from the list clears another hurdle to normalized diplomatic relations between the U.S. and its communist neighbor to the South, members of Congress have not had their final say on the issue. Congressional lawmakers still have some leverage to prevent much deeper rapprochement: Trade embargos against Cuba, solidified in the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, can’t be permanently lifted without an act of Congress.
Although the House of Representatives failed to take action to block the terror list change, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) assailed the move. He said the Obama administration had handed the Castro regime a political victory without extracting any concessions on human rights abuses in return. “Removing the regime from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror is just the latest example of this administration focusing more on befriending our enemies than helping our allies, but fortunately it will have little practical effect,” the Speaker said. “Most U.S. sanctions on the Cuban regime are contained in other laws — laws the U.S. House will ensure remain in place as we work to protect those fighting for freedom, and in many cases, simply their own survival.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been a vocal opponent of easing relations with the nation from which both his parents emigrated, similarly criticized the administration. “President Obama and his administration continue to give the Cuban regime concession after concession, in exchange for nothing that even remotely resembles progress towards freedom and democracy for the Cuban people, or assurances that the regime will discontinue working against America’s national security interests," he said.
Other observers, though, said that Cuba isn’t actually a state sponsor of terrorism anymore. “This is a nonevent,” said attorney Jose W. Fernandez, co-chair of the Latin America Practice Group at the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “Cuba has not supported revolutionary movements in the Americas for years — indeed, it is currently hosting the peace talks between Colombia and the FARC guerrillas."
If taking Cuba off the list was really a big deal, Fernandez added, Congress ought to have acted to block it. "There was little appetite even among the traditional Castro-bashers in Congress to get in front of the terrorism-list-removal train,” he said.
Other steps in the process might play out much differently, though, and Rubio in particular will likely be a key player in how the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba develops in the near term. Just by virtue of being a member of the Senate, where a single member’s refusal to grant unanimous consent can cause enormous delays, Rubio can stand in the way of approving an ambassador for Cuba and can block funding of a U.S. embassy in Havana.
However, Rubio also serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairs the panel’s subcommittee with explicit jurisdiction over the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Should he choose to do so, Rubio could be an enormous drag on the normalization process, and in public remarks, he has indicated that is precisely what he intends to do — regardless of the consequences.
“This is not a political thing,” he said when normalization was first announced. “I don’t care if polls say 99 of the people support normalizing relations with Cuba.”
His objections extend to normalizing trade as well. “This Congress,” he promised, “is not going to lift the embargo.”
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