WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will defy critics in Congress by defanging the 54-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, lifting restrictions on travel, commerce and financial activities as soon as next month, administration officials said Thursday.
The moves are only the beginning of what White House officials and foreign-policy experts describe as a sweeping set of changes that Obama can make on his own to re-establish commercial and diplomatic ties with Cuba even in the face of angry congressional opposition.
“The embargo is a container — it’s been that way since President Eisenhower — that’s had regulations and laws put into it and taken out of it and mixed about,” said John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “President Obama is saying, ‘I’m going to leave a shell,’ but it’s going to be a proverbial Easter egg — it’s going to be hollow.”
The Treasury Department will issue a series of regulations to ease agricultural exports and establish banking relations, administration officials said, and the Commerce Department will move to allow U.S. companies to export construction and telecommunications equipment, among other things, for sale in Cuba.
The State Department is also starting a review that could lead to Cuba’s removal from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing away a major impediment to Havana’s ability to trade and access banking services around the world.
‘Further and faster’
The actions will render the embargo “a lot more holes than cheese,” said Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in U.S. laws relating to Cuba. “The president went big on this, and that produces a momentum of its own, so I expect that we’ll see these things go further and faster than anybody would have anticipated.”
It is not clear when Obama might nominate an ambassador, a move that would set the stage for contentious confirmation hearings.
“We would anticipate that we will have an embassy before we would make a nomination,” said Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
In a briefing with reporters, she described a process that could rapidly lead to a full restoration of diplomatic relations.
“That process is relatively straightforward, frankly, from a legal perspective,” Jacobson said. “We can do that via an exchange of letters or of notes. It doesn’t require a formal sort of legal treaty or agreement.”
White House officials said they had spent months determining how far Obama could go to unilaterally loosen restrictions on trade and financial transactions with Cuba, and concluded he had broad authority to do so without violating the embargo’s scope. Officials said the White House had not “eviscerated the embargo.”
Lawmakers in both parties have made it clear that Congress was unlikely to lift the embargo on its own anytime soon.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the president’s changes were “clearly intended to circumvent the intent and spirit of U.S. law and the U.S. Congress.”
The United States does not need to build a new embassy, officials said, because it would be housed in the Havana compound that is now home to the current U.S. Interests Section. Nor would Cuba’s human-rights record pose an obstacle to the restoration of relations, officials said.
Jacobson is to lead a team of U.S. officials to Havana near the end of January to discuss the restoration of relations as well as issues in carrying out a 1995 migration accord.
“I do think that some human-rights issues will be talked about in this trip,” she said. “I do not necessarily think that we’re talking about direct human rights conditionality in the restoration of diplomatic relations.”
Tearing down barriers
The Treasury and Commerce departments are moving quickly to tear down regulatory barriers to Americans’ ability to travel, conduct financial dealings and export products to Cuba, officials said.
The Commerce Department said it would loosen an array of export limits, including the sale of tools and equipment to small businesses not owned by the Cuban government, like construction companies, agricultural businesses, automobile repair and beauty shops.
Restrictions on scientific, athletic and cultural goods — such as musical instruments — will also be relaxed.
The administration “is confident that these changes are consistent with the statutory requirements of the embargo,” said Matthew Borman, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for export administration.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department will scrap a measure that requires people who are already eligible for travel to Cuba to receive special permission from the government for trips such as those involving family visits, professional, religious or cultural programs and humanitarian projects.
A major step toward resuming ties would be the removal of Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which includes Iran, Sudan and Syria. Cuba was placed on that list in 1982.
Its removal is the most important step the Obama administration can take before the restoration of full economic ties, said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Such a step, she said, would put “Cuba in a normal space where its financial and business ties around the world, and with the United States, will no longer be subject to the sanctions and scrutiny of counterterrorism mechanisms set up after 9/11.”
“Banking is incredibly cumbersome because Cuba is on the list,” she added.
White House officials said the State Department would have six months to review Cuba’s place on the list, but Jacobson said it could be completed sooner.
Julie Hirschfeld Davis
and Michael R. Gordon,
The New York Times
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