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Sen. Marco Rubio faces long odds of reversing Cuba policy

Sen. Marco Rubio faces long odds of reversing Cuba policy
BY CHRIS ADAMSMCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU
02/13/2015 5:50 PM 02/13/2015 5:52 PM

WASHINGTON
In December, just hours after the White House abruptly changed course in
the nation’s relationship with Cuba, Sen. Marco Rubio laid down his marker.

“I intend to use every tool at our disposal in the majority to unravel
as many of these changes as possible,” he said Dec. 17.

It’s now February – and despite congressional hearings and ongoing
pressure on the administration, it’s not clear that Rubio and other
opponents can undo what the president already did.

Rubio is perhaps the nation’s most prominent lawmaker on the Cuba issue.
He’s a Cuban-American, a member of the Senate’s Republican majority and
a potential presidential candidate. And he represents Florida, Cuba’s
closest U.S. neighbor.

But according to Cuba experts, Rubio might have little ability to
reverse Obama’s changes. And Rubio might have realized that.

That doesn’t mean Congress – and Rubio – can’t curtail the
administration’s long-term plans. Congress clearly has authority over
some aspects of the new Cuba policy, and congressional leaders beyond
Rubio are skeptical of the president’s plans.

For his part, Rubio is letting the administration make its case – and
also watching as Cuba makes demands that he said could make
normalization untenable.

In an interview with McClatchy this week, Rubio said President Barack
Obama has “exceeded his authority” with already-announced moves.

“I think many of the changes that he’s made run counter to existing
legislation, which I believe makes it illegal,” Rubio said. “We’ve made
that case, but obviously this is a case we want to prove. But ultimately
it’s going to wind up in the court system.”

Those changes really are just the first step in the Cuban opening. Up
next will be the establishment of an embassy in Havana, as well as the
confirmation of an ambassador.

Asked whether there were enough votes in the Senate to deny confirmation
to an ambassador, Rubio said, “Well, there are multiple ways to stop an
ambassador nomination, and I reserve the right to use all of them. … I
can tell you for certain that no matter who they nominate I will not be
supportive of and will do everything I can to try to stop the nomination
of an ambassador to an embassy that’s not a real embassy.”

The opening to Cuba is a complicated, multipronged effort. Already, the
Treasury and Commerce departments have relaxed rules on some travel to
Cuba, loosened restrictions on financial transactions between the United
States and the island nation, and allowed for U.S. exports of certain
products.

Rubio said some of those changes – such as increased telecommunications
exports to Cuba – are specifically prohibited under current statutes and
will not withstand legal challenges.

The White House disagreed. National Security Council spokesman Patrick
Ventrell said that all changes were “looked at closely by administration
lawyers and all actions were taken in the context of what could legally
be done.”

According to experts on Cuba, stopping the actions the administration
already has taken will be difficult, even with the Republicans in
control of both sides of Congress.

“I think he’s in a bit of a bind,” said Phil Peters, president of the
Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va. “I think he knows there’s not a
legislative means to reverse what President Obama did.”

Rubio might be “planting a flag,” Peters added. “But in terms of action,
I don’t think there’s anything he can do about it. President Obama acted
clearly within his authority, and Congress can’t stop it.”

Last week, Rubio kicked off a trio of hearings – one in the Senate, two
in the House of Representatives – in which opponents of the president’s
plans laid out a case that the Obama administration was taken advantage
of in negotiating its new policy. Rubio emphasized ongoing human rights
abuses and political detentions on the island, as well as demands Cuban
President Raul Castro has made as a condition for normalization.

Rubio’s hearing, experts said, helped frame the upcoming debate and
could slow the administration’s plans.

“There was this level of irrational exuberance from proponents of the
new policy, but Congress hadn’t had a say yet,” said Jason I. Poblete, a
former Republican congressional staffer and an international regulatory
lawyer with Poblete Tamargo LLP who supports the sanctions on Cuba but
said he has been critical of both parties and prior administrations for
their Cuba policies. “Now they are having a say.”

But having a say and reversing the policy are two different things –
although Rubio will have an outsized role in the debate.

“People take what he has to say very seriously,” said Darrell M. West,
vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings
Institution, a Washington think tank.

But the president has substantial executive power on his side. “He can
open an embassy, he can liberalize travel restrictions, he can increase
the amount of money that people living in America can send to Cuba,”
West said. “There’s very little Sen. Rubio can do about those things.”

Rubio “has the ability to stop the parts of the initiative that require
congressional approval, like ending the embargo,” West said. “What he
can’t block is opening an embassy.”

Beyond that are the big issues of freeing travel between the two
countries and ending the embargo that has cut off Cuba from most trade
with the United States. Legislation already has been introduced in
Congress to accomplish both of those goals, though experts say Rubio and
his allies have significant ability to sway the debate.

In an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” House Speaker
John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,
expressed opposition to the president’s plans, and Boehner was skeptical
that the most ambitious of them – such as repealing the trade embargo
with Cuba – would go anywhere. Asked whether the trade embargo would
stay in place, Boehner said, “I would think so.”

Carl Meacham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee who’s now at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, a Washington think tank, said that while support
for the trade embargo is on the decline nationally, Rubio’s position as
a voice for the Cuban exile community means its voice will be heard. A
recent national poll by the Pew Research Center found two-thirds of
respondents favored ending the embargo.

But whether the voice of the Cuban-American community will steer enough
votes in Congress is unclear. Democrats are generally unified in a
pro-change position – with at least one major, influential detractor in
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey – while Republicans are more
fractured, Meacham said.

The ultimate level of support that Rubio can expect for his position is
hard to pin down, thanks to libertarian-leaning Republicans and those
from agriculture states that would benefit from new markets.

“I really think Republicans are split on this issue,” Meacham said. “And
those Republicans who support the president’s decision on this should
not be ignored.”

Of all the potential changes to the relationship with Cuba, Meacham said
Obama is able to change one-third of them on his own. The other
two-thirds fall under the jurisdiction of Congress.

Email: cadams@mcclatchydc.com. Twitter: @CAdamsMcClatchy

THE PATH AHEAD ON CUBA
The U.S. opening to Cuba will be a long and complex process, partly
controlled by the president and partly by Congress.

Financial, travel restrictions: The Treasury and Commerce departments
have already put into place regulations that give some additional leeway
for travel and financial transactions.

Embassy, ambassador: The U.S. is moving to beef up and convert its
diplomatic presence in Havana into a full-fledged embassy. The
administration ultimately will nominate an ambassador to Cuba, whom the
U.S. Senate would have to confirm.

Travel: Lawmakers have introduced legislation to end all travel
restrictions for Americans who want to visit Cuba.

Trade embargo: Legislation also has been introduced to end the embargo
that has curtailed most trade between the United States and Cuba for
five decades.

Source: Sen. Marco Rubio faces long odds of reversing Cuba policy | The
Miami Herald The Miami Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article10141049.html

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