On Saturday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) led the first official congressional delegation to Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation on December 17. Leahy’s office stated that the objective of the trip is to “seek clarity from the Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’”
The delegation—composed of five Democrats from Capitol Hill—boarded its flight to Havana one day after the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce published their new regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba.
Although no formal agreements were reached and there was no indication that the embargo will be lifted, the tone of the delegation’s visit has been friendly and marked by guarded optimism. The American legislators talked with various government officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, as well as anti-government dissidents, to hash out the details of establishing relations in trade, communications and agriculture.
While insisting that Cuba will maintain a one-party political system and centrally planned economy, Rodriguez was reportedly “open to every single issue,” welcoming the full package of new economic links. Meetings with non-governmental actors—such as Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission—may have prevented the delegation from sitting down with President Raúl Castro, but they yielded a list requesting the release of 24 long-term prisoners in addition to the 53 just released by the Cuban government as part of the policy reset deal.
Tonight, President Obama will deliver the annual Statue of the Union address to Congress. Foreign aid contractor and recently returned political prisoner Alan Gross will be seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama—a good indication that the president will address Cuba policy in his speech. Tomorrow, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana to negotiate the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which was officially closed in 1961 but has remained partially active as a “special interests section” since 1977. The State Department is considering removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism and will continue to dismantle embargo-related sanctions.
Americas Society/Council of the Americas published “Open letter to President Obama: Support for a New Course on Cuba” yesterday, cosigned by 78 stakeholders, policy experts and former U.S. officials, applauding the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and urging the U.S. government to continue working with Congress to update legislation.