Republican opposition is fading as pressure grows to lift trade embargo on Havana.
President Obama and his aides argue that Cuba is more likely to change with U.S. engagement. | AP Photo
As President Barack Obama plots a path to Cuba, the big question isn’t whether he’ll visit the island during his final year in office. It’s how many Republicans will beat him there.
A year after the U.S. and Cuba announced they would restore diplomatic ties, Republican resistance to the idea has faded to the point that some insiders predict the next Congress will lift the U.S. embargo on the communist-led island.
A GOP-led Senate panel has already voted to lift an oft-circumvented ban on travel to Cuba. A Republican is spearheading a House bill to end the U.S. embargo.
And Republican lawmakers and governors are hopping on planes to check out the scene in Havana. Just days ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who revels in suing the Obama administration, became the second GOP governor to visit Cuba since diplomatic ties were restored, and he spoke glowingly of the potential for economic cooperation.
The GOP shift comes as polls show that a majority of Americans, including Republican voters, favor increased engagement with Cuba. U.S. firms are scouring the island for business opportunities, and pressure is growing on Congress to rescind Cold War-era restrictions including the embargo and travel ban imposed after diplomatic relations were severed in 1961. Both require congressional action to lift.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of House members announced it would launch a “Cuba Working Group” that “will seek to draw attention to how reforms in the U.S. and Cuba are opening new opportunities for commercial, diplomatic and people-to-people relationships.”
A notable number of Republicans, including some running for president — two of them of Cuban descent — still adamantly oppose restoring ties to the Castro-led government in Havana. But sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, what were once minor cracks in the GOP facade on Cuba are now spreading.
“To the extent that there was some resistance, maybe some broad resistance, there’s now [just] pockets of resistance to diplomatic relations,” said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who has long championed engaging Cuba. He said many of his Republican colleagues tell him privately that they support the rapprochement but can’t say so publicly. Even many who genuinely oppose restoring ties are staying quiet because they know their constituents, especially if they are farmers or business owners, support it, he said.
“The problem is, particularly for members who have been here long enough to have a history of voting on Cuba, it’s tough to change,” Flake said. “It’s tough to turn around, particularly because the Castros are still alive and there.”
Since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, the brother of now-ailing Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that their countries would set aside half a century of enmity, both supporters and opponents of the move can point to developments to bolster their stance.
Castro and Obama met in person, and the two countries formally restored diplomatic ties on July 20, upgrading their diplomatic missions to embassies. The Obama administration removed Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the president has, through executive actions, loosened trade and travel restrictions, including easing the way for telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba. Cuba has expanded Internet access for its citizens, while holding groundbreaking talks with the U.S. on issues such as human rights and battling the drug trade.
The two sides recently opened talks on an especially thorny issue: settling claims by Americans, including U.S. companies and Cubans who fled the island for the U.S., whose property was confiscated by the Cuban government after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. (The Cubans argue that the U.S. owes them damages because of the embargo and other measures it has taken over the years against their country.)