President Barack Obama is ending diplomatic, travel and trade sanctions against Cuba’s fascist government after 50 years, likely giving a huge financial boon to the island’s ruling class.
“Engagement is a better tool than isolation. … Openness is a better policy than isolation,” a senior administration official said in a conference call Wednesday.
The deal has been negotiated in secret since 2013, and does not require the Cuba’s nationalist, militaristic and socialist government to recognize democratic rights, but does allow the U.S. to open an embassy on the island.
Obama is expected to make a public statement at noon Wednesday.
The deal was sealed Dec. 16, in a phone call between Obama and Cuba’s dictator, Raul Castro. The call was the first contact between the two countries’ leaders in 50 years, and lasted almost one hour, said an official.
The talks began in June 2013 in Canada, after Obama began outreach in the spring 2013. The negotiations were aided by the Vatican, the White House official said.
The deal doesn’t require any political changes by Cuba’s oligarchy, officials said.
“The U.S. and Cuba are going to have strong differences on the Cuban political model … and on Cuban foreign policy,” the White House official said.
The deal may result in a gradual dismantling of the Cuba government, similar to the removal of the Soviet Union’s government after 1989.
After the collapse of the Soviet government, the country’s huge wealth was transferred, via a myriad corrupt deals to a few politically connected people, creating a new class of so-called “oligarchs,” a small middle-class and a huge population of poor citizens.
Those oligarchs cooperate closely with Russia’s current government, partly because the government has the power to jail the oligarchs and to seize their wealth.
The agreement will be complicated by political fights over the ownership of Cuba’s valuable real estate, especially its beachfront. That property was stolen by the fascist government after it took power in 1959.
Many of the property owners, or their descendants, are living in the United States.
The deal is unlikely to be threatened by Congress, partly because it will be backed by business, and also because the president has huge legal and political authority to conduct foreign policy.
However, Congress likely won’t expand the deal, and may not lift the legal trade limits on Cuba.
“We’re acting within the boundaries of the law to substantially increase travel, investment and commerce with Cuba,” the White House official said. “We believe there is a substantial constituency, and multiple constituencies, for this kind of change,” said the official, who added that Obama has not asked Congress to lift the trade embargo.
The U.S. will allow U.S. investment in Cuba, including payments to the ruling government and its supporters. U.S. banks will also be allowed to provide credit-card services and investments in Cuba.
The mutual deal was marked by a trade of spies.
Cuba’s fascist government released an pro-American Cuban held in jail for 20 years, and a prisoner, Alan Gross.
Gross was arrested in Cuba where he was working for the federal government’s U.S. Agency for International Development.
Gross was accompanied home by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a long-standing advocate for greater cooperation with Cuba’s government. He was also companied by Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
In exchange, the U.S. is released three Cuban spies.
One of the jailed Cubans worked as an “intelligence asset” for the U.S., said the White House official. He provided information that resulted in the convictions of at least three American spies for Cuba, and the arrest of five Cuba operatives in Florida.
The government is headed by Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel Castro, who ruled the country for 52 years, until 2011.
In 2008, the government began to loosen economic controls, and allowed small businesses — for example, shops and prostitution — to aid the tourist industry that generates much money for the ruling junta.
The growing tourist industry helped the government maintain power after the cut-off of subsidies from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The U.S has maintained a tight economic embargo since the 1960s, although U.S. agriculture companies can sell foodstuffs to the Cuban government.
However, the government has maintained tight control over politics and periodically beats up members of pro-democracy groups.
American leftists have long idolized Cuba’s fascists, and a stream of left-wing movie stars, writers and politicians have made pilgrimages to the fortified island.
U.S. officials touted the deal as a gain for the U.S. government. “This could be a transformative event for the United States in Latin America. … It is about Latin America broadly,” because it will end pressure from other governments for an end to the U.S. sanctions, the official said.
“The rest of the world has moved on from this set of policies and this will be good for the U.S. not just in the hemisphere, but in the world,” the official said.
“We care about human rights … and the current policy isn’t working,” the official said.