Cuba policy draws critics, new battles on Capitol Hill

Polls show a majority of Americans support easing relationship with Cuba.

Bipartisan cheer for the release of a man with Maryland ties who was held in Cuba for more than five years quickly gave way to political rancor Wednesday that presaged coming battles over the dramatic new relationship President Barack Obama outlined with Havana.

One Republican senator vowed to block the confirmation of any nominee to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Others debated whether Congress could bar funding for an embassy that White House officials said they want to establish in a matter of months. One senior Democrat and longtime Obama ally called for hearings.

Even before aid worker Alan Gross landed at Joint Base Andrews, lawmakers from both parties were weighing in on Obama's decision to re-establish the diplomatic relations that the United States severed with Cuba during the Cold War. The immediate response suggested that Cuba will be front and center when the new Republican-majority Senate gavels in next month.

"I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement," Obama said. "After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked."

The president has broad authority to restore diplomacy, analysts said. But lifting the decades-old trade embargo would require an act of Congress. Administration officials acknowledged that lawmakers are unlikely to take that step soon.

Still, the sweeping announcement — made less than a month after a series of executive actions on immigration — was the latest example of the Obama administration acting unilaterally on a controversial issue. The move comes in his final years in office, when presidents often shift their emphasis to foreign policy.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama promised to normalize relations with Cuba if the country took "significant steps toward democracy." Critics said Wednesday that the White House bargained away too much without adequate assurances from the Castro government that the political or humanitarian landscape in Cuba will change.

"It is a victory for the oppressive Cuban government but a serious setback for the repressed Cuban people," said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is considering a run for president in 2016.

"The White House has conceded everything and gained little," Rubio said. He said he would attempt to block any ambassador to Cuba nominated by the White House.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and an Obama administration ally, was among the sharpest critics. In a pair of searing statements, Menendez said the move would endanger U.S. lives overseas but do little to effect change in Cuba.

"Releasing political prisoners today in Cuba is meaningless if tomorrow these individuals can be arrested again and denied the right to peacefully pursue change in their own country," said Menendez, whose parents emigrated from Cuba.

He called on the incoming Republican majority to hold hearings "on this dramatic and mistaken change of policy."

"It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that if he extends his hand in peace that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists," he said.

Obama's actions drew support from unusual quarters. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which often aligns with Republicans, called the approach a "substantive and positive step forward." Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona urged GOP colleagues not to stand in the way of what he said were positive developments.

"It would be really counterproductive to block funding for an embassy," he said. "Certainly, the policy is right and good politics usually follow."

Public opinion polls have generally shown that a majority of Americans support easing relations with Cuba. A New York Times poll in October found that 56 percent of Americans backed the opening of diplomatic and trade relations with the island nation of 11 million. Other polls show that Cuban-Americans in Florida — a powerful political constituency — support establishing diplomatic ties by wider margins.

Those who study Cuba offered a mixed assessment of Obama's new policy.

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at University on Miami, said the deal appeared to be good for Cuba but less so for the United States.

"The Cubans have played the game well; they have got concessions," Suchlicki said. He said he doubted that the Cuban government would offer anything in the way of real reform, either in movement toward democracy or away from ties with U.S. adversaries such as Iran.

"Fundamentally, there's no change in Cuba's policy," he said.

Henry Erisman, a professor at Indiana State University who studies Cuba, called the deal "significant as a first step."

He said when two countries have long had contentious interactions, confidence-building gestures are important. The measures announced by Obama seem to fit that bill, Erisman said.

But he said lifting the embargo would have a greater impact on the lives of most Cubans. That would require action by the Republican-controlled Congress that will convene in the new year.

"That's where ... problems are going to arise," Erisman said.

The United States sells some food to Cuba, and the administration can take some steps by itself, such as allowing some U.S. companies to do business in Cuba. But Erisman said that trade is a "one-way street."

"We will sell things to them, but we will not buy them," Erisman said.

Some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, offered support for the move while raising concerns about human rights violations.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said a more open relationship would allow the United States to pressure the Cuban government directly on human rights, as it does now in China, Russia and elsewhere.

"We're not going to be quiet about it," said Cardin, who has worked to promote human rights as co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"I'm pleased we're improving our relationship with Cuba, but there are changes that have to take place," he said.

Critics expressed skepticism.

"President Obama's decision to allow the Castro regime to blackmail the United States and abandon our pro-democracy principles is an outrage," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican and Cuban-American.

"These changes to policy will further embolden the Cuban dictatorship to continue brutalizing and oppressing its own people."

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