Cuban President Raul Castro (third right) receives released Cuban prisoners Ramon Labanino (second left), Gerardo Hernandez (third left), and Antonio Guerrero (second right), who were greeted also by Fernando Gonzalez (left) and Rene Gonzalez (right) upon their return from the US. Labanino, Hernandez and Antonio Guerrero, released after more than 15 years behind bars in the US, arrived on Cuban soil following a prisoner exchange that paved the way for a historic breakthrough the Cold War standoff with the US.
US President Barack Obama’s historic decision to renew ties with Cuba was a diplomatic triumph but he faces a tough battle with Congress over lifting the embargo at the heart of the dispute.
As world leaders welcomed the groundbreaking announcement, the harsh reality remained that the embargo, a cornerstone of US policy, is here to stay, at least for the near future.
“This Congress is not going to lift the embargo,” Republican senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, told reporters.
He blasted Obama’s moves as “a victory for oppression” and said he would “use every tool at our disposal in the majority to unravel as many of these changes as possible.”
Experts agree that, in addition to government agencies signing off on rolling back the embargo, congressional legislation would be needed to repeal laws like the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which tightened prohibitions on US trade with Cuba.
Obama said he would urge Congress to lift the embargo imposed in 1960, while using his presidential authority to advance diplomatic and travel links and ease restrictions on finance.
“We are all Americans,” Obama declared, breaking into Spanish. But the Republicans will take full control of Congress in January and, with anger still pulsing over Obama’s unilateral immigration action last month, a swift repeal of the embargo is unlikely.
While some backed Obama’s move, key Democrats, including senator Robert Menendez and congressman Eliot Engel, expressed opposition. “I believe that Congress must see a greater political opening in Cuba before lifting the embargo,” said Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Funding to re-open the US mission in Havana would require congressional appropriation, and lawmakers like senator Lindsey Graham say they would seek to block it.
Meanwhile Zoe Valdes, one of the best-known Cuban authors, yesterday said the historic rapprochement was not likely to improve the lives of people in the communist-run island.
“It’s very important progress, but for the Castro leaders, not for the people,” Valdes, who has lived in exile in France for close to two decades, said adding she was “very sceptical and pessimistic.”
“I don’t think this will improve the lot of the Cubans. We will have to wait for the death of both Castros, or even more, for things to change.”
Raul Castro, 83, took over from his ailing older brother Fidel in 2008 and set about toning down the government’s anti-American rhetoric and taking baby steps toward economic reform, helping to pave the way for the rapprochement.
Castro and US President Barack Obama made simultaneous speeches Wednesday in Havana and Washington to make an announcement that took the world by surprise.
“There is already a bad sign: Obama’s speech was not broadcast in Cuba,” said Valdes, who was born in Cuba in 1959. “In his, Raul Castro said: ‘we must begin to behave in a civilised manner’. Is he going to apply that inside the country? I don’t think so. And we don’t know the content of discussions between the two countries.”
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