Less than a week after removing Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s infamous list of state sponsors of terror, President Obama is now facing a legislative attack on his Cuban reengagement effort from the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. A new House appropriations bill, unveiled on Tuesday, prohibits federal spending on a potential U.S. embassy in Cuba and freezes funding for U.S.-Cuban diplomatic initiatives at pre-December 2014 levels -where they stood prior to the start of the president’s normalization campaign. If passed, the legislation would also restrict the ability of the Cuban government to acquire American financing for its own eventual embassy in the U.S.
“I think we have been very clear with our challenges with what’s gone on in Cuba, from human rights, from what’s happened there, and we have a difference of opinion with the administration and we have a right to express it,” Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader and a supporter of Tuesday’s legislation, told reporters.
The largely GOP-backed appropriations bill increases federal spending on U.S.-backed democratization initiatives in Cuba, including efforts to expand media access and reform elections on the island; it also directs the State Department to deny visas to Cuban government officials and members of the Cuban Communist Party. Proponents of the restrictive legislation argue that substantive political reform on the island should precede further diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba. Furthermore, they’ve repeatedly threatened to block any and all efforts by the White House or the State Department to improve relations with Cuba until the long-ruling authoritarian Castro regime is removed from power. Tuesday’s House appropriations bill appears to finally back up these threats.
Congressional opposition to President Obama’s Cuba policy is led primarily by Florida-based Cuban American legislators like Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and presidential-hopeful Marco Rubio in the Senate. Most of these politicians are electorally dependent on strongly anti-Castro Cuban American voters in Miami and other Cuban immigrant enclaves in the sunshine state.
An official statement from the White House in reaction to another recent piece of legislation, this one a House transportation bill, designed to undermine the president’s Cuba policy was unequivocal: “His [Obama’s] senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.” The administration went on to warn that the bill in question “place[s] unnecessary restrictions on options for educational, religious, or other permitted travel” to the Caribbean island by prohibiting federal funding to commercial vessels and airplanes traveling between the U.S. and Cuba. That aspect of the legislation would effectively nullify the popular regulatory changes to U.S.-Cuba travel and trade restrictions that the administration has made in recent months.
President Obama’s Cuban pivot has been largely well received by the public; American travel to the island nation has ballooned since the administration first announced the policy change last December. With U.S.-Cuban reengagement and diplomatic normalization now being viewed by many as a cornerstone of the president’s foreign policy legacy, it is highly unlikely that the administration will take the House’s most recent challenge sitting down. The White House’s veto threats should thus be taken seriously.