WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s decision on Monday to ease limits on family travel to Cuba and to allow U.S. telecommunications companies to operate on the communist-run island could mark the beginning of the end of a 50-year-old U.S. embargo.
But next steps in what analysts expect to be a slowly evolving process could depend on how the Cuban government reacts to the new U.S. move.
“In the past, when Congress has pushed to create holes in the embargo, the Cuban government has often created a crisis. I think, at bottom, they like having the embargo there and maybe they’ll do that again,” said Ed Gresser, head of the Progressive Policy Institute’s trade division.
In addition, a number of U.S. lawmakers remain strongly opposed to ending the full embargo Cuba as long as the island remains under communist control.
The White House announced the decision just days before Obama travels to Trinidad for the Summit of Americas meeting with other regional leaders, who view the U.S. embargo as outdated and ineffective.
It fulfills one of Obama’s campaign promises by lifting restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting family members in Cuba and sending money home to their relatives.
It also allows U.S. telecommunications companies to provide phone, satellite television and other services to boost the free flow of information on the island.
“Those are the steps that the president believes are the most effective under the current circumstances to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people,” White House adviser Daniel Restrepo told reporters.
“Obviously, like all aspects of policy, you have to react to the world that you encounter. And so I don’t think we should think of — we shouldn’t think of things as being frozen in time.”
Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the U.S. move sent an important signal that the Obama administration was prepared to move in a “deliberate and measured way” to improve relations with Cuba if Havana is willing to cooperate.
Many lawmakers favor lifting all restrictions on travel as a first step toward ending the embargo.
“It’s hypocritical to have a policy that allows travel to Vietnam and North Korea and Iran and China, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and yet when it comes to Cuba, not respect the fundamental right of an American to exercise his or her freedom to travel,” William Delahunt, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, told Reuters.
Opponents of change include Sen. Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American from New Jersey who is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The strength of feelings on both sides will make it a “challenge” to get Congress to go farther than Obama did on Monday, said Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents major U.S. exporting companies.
Still, at least some believe U.S. policy has reached a tipping point, even if it is still some time before the embargo is ended.
“I think this is the beginning of the end of the embargo. That’s not to say the embargo is going to be lifted overnight. But I think President Obama understands an embargo isn’t the way to deal with an enemy,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, an non-profit advocacy group.
It is in the U.S. interests to cooperate with Cuba on issues ranging from law enforcement to hurricanes and hopefully talks on such matters could eventually lead to restoration of political and economic ties, Stephens said.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Chris Wilson