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The Road Ahead for Cuba Policy

Questions continue to swirl around the future of U.S.-Cuba policy as recent reports of a Trump Administration plan to strengthen Cuba sanctions surfaced over the weekend. These reports should be assessed against the backdrop of an increased Congressional effort to end the embargo on Cuba.

Recent Legislative Activity

On May 25, 2017, a bipartisan group of 55 Senators led by Senators. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) reintroduced the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act (S. 1287). The Act was previously introduced in the 114th Congress with 8 co-sponsors, but has now been reintroduced with 47 additional cosponsors. This legislation would eliminate current restrictions on traveling to Cuba for tourist purposes.  While a summary of the bill is not yet available, reports indicate the legislation would completely and permanently deregulate U.S. travel to Cuba.

Regarding the bill, Sen. Leahy states that “A bipartisan majority of the Senate agrees that the federal government should not be telling Americans where they can or cannot travel, especially to a tiny country just 90 miles from Florida…While this bill doesn’t lift the embargo, it at least would restore to Americans the freedom to travel they are entitled to.”

That same day, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mike Enzi (R-WY), as well Senators. Flake and Leahy led a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to introduce separate legislation to lift the Cuba trade embargo (S. 1286). Called The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017, the bill would repeal key provisions of previous laws that block U.S. persons from doing business in Cuba.  However, the proposed bill would not repeal portions of current legislation that address human rights or property claims against the Cuban government.  The bill has been endorsed by Engage Cuba, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, and Cargill.

There are several other Cuba-related bills currently pending in Congress.  For example, there are more narrowly tailored proposals in both the House and Senate that would remove restrictions on offering private credit for the export of agricultural commodities to Cuba.  As context, the Trade Sanctions and Reform Act (TSRA) in 2000 allows the export of agricultural commodities to Cuba, but prohibits U.S. banks from financing the sales.   The pending legislation, among other things, would allow for this financing and for persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to invest in the development of certain agricultural business in Cuba.

Possible Executive Action

The flurry of legislative activity should be balanced against recent reports suggesting the Trump Administration plans on rolling back former President Obama’s policies towards engagement with the Cuban people. In December 2014, the Obama Administration announced a series of diplomatic and economic changes geared towards engaging and empowering the Cuban people.  This led to a relaxation of sanctions, including allowing for broader general license categories for travel to Cuba, increased financing opportunities, and expanded authorization for activities in Cuba’s telecommunications, medical, financial services, trade, aviation, shipping and other sectors.

During the course of the presidential campaign, President Trump indicated he would reverse Cuban policies instituted during the Obama Administration.  After the transition, the Administration announced a “full review” of Cuba policy that now appears to be near-complete.  News outlets suggest the Administration could announce these changes as early as next month.  It appears that changes possibly being considered involve restricting business with entities owned or controlled by Cuban state or military enterprises, as well as possibly tightening existing general license travel categories.

Looking forward, the Administration’s ability to change Cuba policy could be shaped by whether Congress takes any action, and if so, whether the President is willing to exercise his veto authority.