U.S.-Cuba Relations: What We’ve Accomplished Together in 2015, What Remains to Be Done

The following blog, co-written with Mavis Anderson, was originally published on the Latin America Working Group’s website.

A shorter-form version of this blog was also published on Progreso Weekly and on HuffPost Politics.

The forward-looking policy changes that have taken place over the last year would not have been possible without the decades of tremendous work by advocates, grassroots activists, diplomats, policymakers, and the vast network of organizations in the United States and Cuba focused on ending the embargo and normalizing relations between the two countries.

The December 17, 2014, announcement by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul 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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 8.53.52 PMAs 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.

What has changed since December 17, 2014?

Click here to see the infographic timeline created by LAWGEF to highlight the major moments in U.S.-Cuba relations since the December 17, 2014 announcement.

  • The United States and Cuba exchanged prisoners and Cuba released Alan Gross. The last three members of the “Cuban Five” were released from prison in the United States in exchange for Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban CIA operative. Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who had been held in a Cuban prison for five years, was also released on humanitarian grounds and returned home.
  • The Cuban government released some political prisoners. In December 2014 and January 2015, the Cuban government released 53 political prisoners agreed upon in the deal with the United States. Ahead of the September 2015 trip to Cuba by Pope Francis, the Cuban government also released 3,522 prisoners; however, none of these were political prisoners and the practice of detaining and harassing political dissidents continues.
  • The United States government has made substantial regulatory changes in travel, trade, and telecommunications. Included in the Obama Administration’s “new course” for U.S. policy toward Cuba were regulatory changes authorizing expanded sales and exports of specific goods and services from the United States to Cuba, authorizing American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba, authorizing U.S. telecommunications providers to establish infrastructure in Cuba Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 8.54.06 PMto provide commercial telecommunications and internet services, and expanding travel under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba already authorized by law. Under the new travel regulations, U.S. citizens are no longer required to apply for individual licenses when authorized for travel in one of the twelve existing categories: 1) family visits; 2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; 3) journalistic activity; 4) professional research and professional meetings; 5) educational activities; 6) religious activities; 7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; 8) support for the Cuban people; 9) humanitarian projects; 10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; 11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and 12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
  • Cuba has finally been removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. On May 28, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, following the expiration of President Obama’s 45-day notification to Congress of Cuba’s impending removal from the list. On October 30, 2015, the Department of Defense issued their final rule to amend the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS) to remove Cuba from the definition of “state sponsor of terrorism” in two DFARS clauses. This rule implements the Department of Defense (DOD)’s “Rescission of Determination Regarding Cuba.” In other words, Cuba has been officially removed from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
  • Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 8.54.43 PMThe United States and Cuba reopened embassies. On July 20, 2015, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. was officially converted to an embassy. The U.S. Embassy in Havana was also reopened on the same day. On August, 14, 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the world from Havana, Cuba during a ceremony celebrating the official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Kerry’s visit to Cuba marked the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since 1945. The opening of embassies marked a major step forward in normalizing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba after over 50 years of severed diplomatic ties.
  • The United States and Cuba formed a bilateral commission for negotiations on normalization issues. The two countries created this commission for the scheduling of high-level dialogues on a broad range of issues, including maritime security, climate change, environmental cooperation, migration, telecommunications and the Internet, cooperation on law enforcement and counter-narcotics efforts, human rights, civil aviation, direct mail, fugitives, property claims by U.S. companies and citizens, and property claims by Cuban Americans who were Cuban citizens and left the island following the Revolution, among other issues.
  • The United States and Cuba have signed direct cooperative agreements. The two countries have reached their first accord since negotiations began: the United States and Cuba have signed an agreement on environmental protection and marine conservation. Environmental cooperation has been one of the most successful areas of discussion and progress in the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Cuba. Last year, LAWGEF coordinated a trip to Cuba with the U.S.-Cuba Hemingway Commemorative Project, including two of Ernest Hemingway’s grandsons, to encourage this further cooperation between U.S. and Cuban scientists on marine research in the Florida Straits.
  • The United States and Cuba have begun formal dialogues on human rights issues. On March 13, 2015, the two countries met for the first time to discuss the thorny issue of human rights. Human Rights Watch has described President Obama’s new policy as “a breath of fresh air and a chance to make some real progress on human rights.” International human rights groups, like Amnesty International, have long supported an end to the embargo. However, tensions between U.S. and Cuban government officials over human rights issues continue.
  • The United States and Cuba participated in the 7th Summit of the Americas. The 7th Summit of the Americas marked the first time the leaders of the United States and Cuba were both in attendance. On April, 11, 2015, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas for the first face-to-face meeting between the U.S. and Cuban leaders in almost 60 years.
  • The President has made strong calls to the U.S. Congress to end the embargo. President Obama asked Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba during the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015. “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same,” President Obama said during a formal announcement on July 1, 2015.
  • The United States was further isolated at the United Nations on the issue of the embargo on Cuba. On October 27, 2015, the United States once again was isolated from the international community by voting against the Cuban government’s annual UN General Assembly resolution condemning the embargo. The resolution passed 191-2, with only the United States and Israel voting against it. With the resolution, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, called for concrete action instead of flowery language about change and normalization of relations. As Minister Rodriguez stated before the General Assembly, “The lifting of the blockade will be the essential element to give some meaning to the progress achieved over the past few months in the relations between both countries and shall set the pace towards normalization.”

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

  • The U.S. trade embargo and travel ban on Cuba have not been legally lifted. The United States government imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1960 and broke diplomatic relations in 1961. Although some substantial changes have been made through executive authority by the Obama Administration, “legislative action will be required to lift the embargo and rules for travel to Cuba by persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction remain in effect,” according to a State Department factsheet.
  • 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 restriction will require an act of Congress to change.
  • The Cuban Adjustment Act, the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy,” and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program, also known as the “Cuban Doctors Program,” are still in place. The Obama Administration currently has 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. The preferential immigration laws for Cuban migrants, which have been heavily criticized by the Cuban government, may be reconsidered in the coming year, though the administration says it has no plans to do so.
  • The U.S. Congress continues to appropriate funds for “democracy promotion” programs. In spite of the apparent failure of clandestine USAID-funded programs to inspire Cuban citizens to overturn their government, similar programs continue. Among the secret USAID projects were a Twitter-like social network called “ZunZuneo” and an attempt to recruit Cuban rap artists to perform songs with lyrics inspiring “social change.”
  • Property claims with a collective value of billions of dollars remain to be resolved. Almost 9,000 property claims have been registered with the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, including 6,000 certified claims by U.S. citizens and corporations against Cuba, as well as nearly 3,000 claims by Cuban-Americans who were Cuban citizens at the time their property was nationalized. The Cuban government has also presented claims against the United States for damages inflicted by the embargo—discussions began in December 2015 in an effort to resolve and/or satisfy these claims.
  • Financial and banking regulations continue to discourage U.S. engagement with Cuba. U.S. Treasury Department/OFAC financial and banking regulations have created real and perceived risks that discourage U.S. and foreign banks and service providers from engaging in financial transactions involving Cuba, thus preventing commercial agreements from being signed and completed.
  • The United States and Cuba continue to request the return of fugitives to “pursue justice” for alleged crimes. Among the highest profile Americans that the United States wants extradited —some of whom have been granted political asylum in Cuba— are: Assata Shakur (aka Joanne Chesimard ), Charlie Hill, Victor Manuel Gerena, William Morales, and Ishmael LaBeet. Cuba, on the other hand, argues that the U.S. government has given shelter to “dozens and dozens of Cuban citizens. Some of them accused of horrible crimes, some accused of terrorism, murder and kidnapping, and in every case the U.S. government has decided to welcome them,” says Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s head of North American affairs. The highest profile fugitive that Cuba wants returned is Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative who, according to CIA documents released by the National Security Archive, was one of the engineers of the 1976 terrorist bombing of Cubana Airlines flight 455 that killed 73 passengers. Another Cuban exile linked to the 1976 bombing was Orlando Bosch, who lived in Miami until his death in April of 2011.
  • The U.S. government continues to fund Radio Martí, Televisión Martí, and martinoticias.com with U.S. tax-payer funds. The broadcast programming now known collectively as the Martís was established in 1983 by the Reagan Administration and began radio broadcasts in 1985, followed by television programming in 1990. Since 1990, the Martís have been overseen by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, an independent federal agency funded by U.S. taxpayers. Critics, including LAWG coalition partner Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE), have argued that the taxpayer-funded broadcasting is ineffective and costly. Benjamin Willis, a founding member of CAFE and co-director of the United States Cuba Now PAC, has called for the immediate abandonment of the Martís which he describes as “a $28 million taxpayer footed boondoggle that doesn’t even reach Cuban audiences.” With the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, this government-funded network which promotes messaging in contradiction to new policy goals is being reconsidered.
  • Guantanamo is still occupied by the United States. Cuba has identified Guantanamo’s return to Cuban sovereignty, along with the end of the embargo, as conditions for normalizing relations. Certainly this will be on the negotiations table as the two nations continue to address many thorny issues. While we cannot predict the outcome of those negotiations, we anticipate that some process will need to be agreed upon. To this point, positions on Guantanamo seem quite inflexible on both sides.

What can we do in 2016?

LAWG 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. LAWG, along with many U.S. legal experts, maintains that the administration could do more within the president’s authority to change policies toward Cuba and move further toward normalized relations.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 8.55.01 PMMoving forward with executive action, however, includes the potential risk that the policy changes enacted by President Obama in the last year could easily be reversed by a future president. Potential 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 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. On December 16, 2015, twelve members of the House of Representatives announced the formation of a bi-partisan Cuba Working Group with the stated goal of “rais[ing] the level of understanding inside of Congress for the need to build a new policy framework for U.S.-Cuban relations.” The Cuba Working Group the bipartisan Cuba Working Group steering committee members include: Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Rick Crawford (R-AR), Tom Emmer (R-MN), Reid Ribble (R-WI), Kathy Castor (D-FL), Sam Farr (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Ted Poe (R-TX), Rosa Delauro (D-CT), Mark Sanford (R-SC), and Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), all of whom are “supporters of one or more key pieces of legislation introduced in 2015.” Inroads have been made with the Republican Party, and several bills have been introduced by Republicans in the House and the Senate. We have found that some of the most effective methods for convincing Republicans and Democrats alike to co-sponsor important legislation on Cuba include: exposing more members of Congress to the realities in Cuba by urging them to join a delegation trip, utilizing action alerts to make sure members of Congress are hearing from concerned constituents, and educating members of Congress about the damage done by the embargo and the possibilities for a future when trade and travel restrictions are lifted.

“If we think it’s truly about helping the Cuban people… it starts by lifting the embargo,” says Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN). Just as LAWG encourages U.S. citizens to advocate for policy changes, Rep. Emmer encourages grassroots activists to take action: “You need to engage to help us, we can’t just do it through the legislative process.”

Currently, we need YOU to take action to urge your representative and senators to co-sponsor two bills in the House and two in the Senate that LAWG is actively supporting.

In the House, we have focused our attention on:

  • The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (HR664), introduced by Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC 1st) and Rep. James McGovern (D-MA 2nd). This bipartisan travel bill currently has 47 co-sponsors.
  • The Cuba Trade Act of 2015 (HR3238), introduced by Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN 6th) and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL 14th). This bill currently has 11 co-sponsors, though Congressman Emmer wants many more Republican co-sponsors before the legislation is taken to the floor.


In the Senate there are also two bills that can help move U.S.-Cuba policy forward:

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Acts in the House and Senate would both end the ban on travel to Cuba, while the other two bills would end many restrictions on trade with Cuba, though imports from Cuba would still be very limited. Taken together, the 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, formally called the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, strengthens and continues the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Congress enacted the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, codifying the embargo and making it impossible for the president to unilaterally revoke it. While Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have signed provisions allowing for waivers of the law and the passage of the Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act in 2000 have allowed the export of U.S. agriculture and medical goods to Cuba, strict conditions remain on trade with Cuba.
  • The Trading with the Enemy Act, ratified each year by the President, authorizes sanctions against Cuba. However, this act also bestows authority to the executive branch that would otherwise be overridden by the Helms-Burton Act. President Obama reauthorized Cuba’s listing under the Trading with the Enemy Act in September 2015 in order to retain this authority and authorize changes to the sanctions on Cuba, through regulation changes at the Treasury Department and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
  • The Cuban Democracy Act, a bill presented by U.S. Congressman Robert Torricelli and passed in 1992, prohibited foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, restricted travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and family remittances to Cuba.

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.

Note: This blog was updated on December 16, 2015 to reflect the announcement of the formation of a bi-partisan Cuba Working Group. While LAWG has created this update with the intention of providing a comprehensive analysis of the progress made in 2015 and the actions needed in the coming year, we recognize the limits of this blog in addressing every factor at play and every issue that may arise.

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