But the official, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, emphasized that the government in Havana would first have to make progress on democratic reforms and free imprisoned U.S. aid worker Alan Gross. The comments came during Blinken's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Do you anticipate, during the rest of the president’s term, that there will be any unilateral change” to sanctions on Cuba absent democratic reforms, asked Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents emigrated from Cuba to the U.S.
“Anything that might be done on Cuba will have to be consistent with the law,” Blinken replied. He added, “Anything that in the future might be done on Cuba would be done in full consultation” with Congress.
Rubio tried again, noting “chatter” that Obama could try to change relations with Cuba unilaterally before leaving the White House in January 2017.
“The president has views on how to try to move, help move Cuba in a democratic direction, to help support people moving in that direction, and, you know, if he has an opportunity I’m sure that’s something he would want to pursue,” Blinken said. “But it depends on Cuba and the actions that they take.”
And recently Cuba’s government has taken “actions in exactly the wrong direction,” he added, noting that Havana was “unjustly imprisoning” Gross.
Rubio came back for a third try: “The thing that concerns me is that I haven’t heard you say point blank that, absent democratic openings, we’re not going to see actions on the part of this administration to weaken the current embargo and sanctions against Cuba.”
Again Blinken deflected the question, though he agreed Cuba would need to take steps before there could be changes. “At least in my judgment, unless Cuba is able to demonstrate that it is taking meaningful steps to move forward, I don’t see how you move forward in the relationship,” Blinken said.
Advocates of changing Washington’s policy toward Cuba cheered when Obama declared at a November 2013 fundraiser in Florida that the United States had to be “creative” and “thoughtful” about fostering change on the island, “and we have to continue to update our policies.”
“The notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today, in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel, doesn't make sense,” Obama said at the time.
But Obama’s last notable unilateral move on Cuba came in January 2011, when he eased restrictions on travel to and from the island. And top administration officials say nothing will happen while Cuba continues to hold Gross, who was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison in connection with an effort to create a communications network outside government control.
Obama’s options for unilateral action are relatively limited. Lifting the embargo of more than five decades imposed after Fidel Castro’s revolution and subsequent turn toward the Soviet Union requires congressional action. But advisers have suggested much more modest steps, like increasing cultural exchanges, further easing travel or dropping Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. In foreign policy circles, speculation has run rampant that Obama is looking at steps he could take in his final two years in office to overhaul U.S.-Cuba relations.
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