President Obama announced on Wednesday that he was pursuing a marked shift in policy to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. This included a future U.S. embassy in the capital city of Havana, as well as the possibility of official visits to the island. Other aspects of the policy agenda called for a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and the opening of channels of travel, commerce, and information. Full details of the updated policy approach here.
Notable in this key moment in U.S-Cuba relations was the role of Pope Francis, who President Obama acknowledging for playing a strong role in facilitating the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross. Gross, a USAID employee, was working in Cuba when he was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state. The Pope made personal appeals to both President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro to encourage a dialogue between the two nations and issued a warm congratulations following President Obama’s public address.
Reactions to this historic shift in policy have been mixed. Some hailed the move as an obvious one, considering the lack of positive results from the long-running Cuban embargo. Others, like Senator Marco Rubio, vehemently objected and criticized Obama’s apparent concessions to the Cuban “dictatorship” by exchanging three Cubans held as spies for Gross’s return. Rubio represents a powerful voice against the implementation of many of Obama’s stated goals; he is set to take seat as the Chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and would be in a critical position to block funding for a new embassy in Cuba. After publicly stating that he is “committed to doing everything [he] can to unravel as many of these changes as possible,” Rubio will also be one of the most vocal voices in Congress blocking any changes to the current Cuban embargo.
While Obama’s address certainly marked a key point in thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations, only cooperation between both branches of government will enact a true breakdown of the Cold War policies that have governed for the last 50 years.