Washington is proposing normalized relations with Havana. The Cuban capitol is pictured here in a recent photo.  

You can’t make this up. Spies. Secret meetings in Ottawa and Rome. The PopeCanada. Miami. Havana. When does the movie come out?

I never imagined that this president – or the next one, or the one after that — would call for the exchange of Cuban and U.S. ambassadors, for ending the embargo and for taking Cuba off the terrorist list. Supporters of these changes are calling Mr. Obama a bold statesman; opponents have tagged him the appeaser-in-chief.

The full list of the policy changes can be found here, but I find the following the most significant:  

Embassies. The president called for the resumption of full diplomatic relations and re-establishing an embassy in Havana.  A large number of U.S. diplomats already work in Havana in the building that was the U.S. embassy before we broke relations.  While a normal person would think that it is a U.S. embassy, technically the building and its employees are the “U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland”– a diplomatic fiction. The “Cuban Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland” in Washington and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana will miraculously be transformed back into the embassies they were before we broke relations in 1960. The buildings won’t change, only the brass plaques. 

With an exchange of notes, we will declare the normalization of relations and (in theory) send an ambassador to Havana, and the Cubans will (most definitely) send an ambassador to Washington.

Communications and the exchange of information.  Cubans have miserable access to the Internet and what they do have is closely controlled by the government. U.S. companies will now be allowed to sell personal communications equipment and software as well as the equipment that is needed to connect Cuba to undersea fiber optic cables. The government of Cuba will necessarily allow this to happen just because we say it is legally possible. 

Private sector. There are an estimated 500,000 “self-employed” Cubans allowed to operate businesses in 200-plus categories, mostly personal services like barbers and repair shops. However, there are no wholesalers in Cuba, so the self-employed either make do with what they can buy retail, MacGyver pre-1959 equipment or do without. Independent farmers have nowhere to buy equipment and fertilizer.  And there is not a single business school in Cuba. Under the new policy, U.S. companies will be able to sell or donate equipment and inputs to the self-employed. It will be easier to organize classes in business administration. (Robinson College of Business, are you listening?) Again, though, the government of Cuba would have to permit businesses to import and the college to give classes. 

Reviewing Cuba’s place on the terrorist list. The USG designates Cuba as a “State Sponsor of terrorism” and included Cuba on The Terrorist List together with Iran, Sudan and Syria. The resulting sanctions complicate financial transactions with Cuba.  Cuba is on the list because of its historic links to the Basque separatist organization ETA and the FARC guerrillas in Colombia.  The reality is that Spain maintains normal, if not particularly friendly, relations with Cuba, and Cuba is actually hosting the peace talks between the FARC and the government of Colombia. Mr. Obama implied strongly that Cuba will be taken off the terrorist list after a review of the data.  

Here’s what’s not going to happen:

Embargo. The embargo is not policy; it is law and cannot be lifted without Congress passing legislation. In this political environment the Congress is unlikely to pass legislation modifying the six laws that are the legal basis for the embargo. 

Ambassador. Because U.S. ambassadors must be confirmed by the Senate, it is unlikely an ambassador will be sent to Cuba. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the incoming sub-committee chair and is unlikely to even schedule confirmation hearings.  

I am leading a delegation to Cuba in April for World Affairs Council members and the larger community that will meet with the U.S. Interests Section, with the Cuban government, the Catholic church, the self-employed sector and many others. I invite Global Atlanta readers to come with me and decide for yourself if Mr. Obama is a bold statesman or the appeaser-in-chief.

Charles Shapiro is the President of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.  He is a retired Foreign Service Officer who was ambassador to Venezuela, the coordinator for Cuban Affairs and acting assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere.    

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...