MIAMI — Since declaring 2014 a "year of action" when he will use his executive authority to get things done, President Obama has been pressed by a variety of groups to use his pen to bypass Congress. Starting Monday, he can add another topic to the wish list: Cuba.
A new advocacy group called #CubaNow will launch an ad urging Obama to expand the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba and send money to the emerging business community there. Made up of younger Cuban Americans and former Obama administration officials who view the 50-year-old embargo as a failed effort to topple the country's Communist government, the group says Congress is unable to get anything done so they're pushing the president to take steps on his own.
"We encourage Congress to review our current legislative framework toward Cuba and modernize it, but the Cuban people aren't waiting for conditions to be ideal and for our politicians to move," said Ric Herrero, 36, a son of Cuban immigrants who is the executive director of the new group. "There's a lot that the president can do to help facilitate greater travel to the island by Americans, to help increase the support for civil society ... and increase the flow of assets to the island."
One of the first ads published by the group, which will appear for a month throughout the Metro subway system around Washington, uses a quote from a popular Cuban blogger that summarizes the group's thinking.
"People abroad should support the nascent sector of private micro businesses ... because economic autonomy is political autonomy," wrote Yoani Sánchez, a blogger who has won international awards for her work chronicling the daily life of Cubans.
Supporters of the U.S. embargo on the communist island say the efforts of #CubaNow are as misguided as previous attempts to weaken or eliminate the embargo through congressional action.
Jaime Suchlicki, executive director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, says that every time a tourist visits Cuba or an American sends money to a Cuban, the regime headed by President Raúl Castro takes a significant cut in the form of fees to conduct the money transfers or income to the government-owned hotels. And while Castro has allowed more Cubans to own and operate their own businesses, Suchlicki says, they are allowed to conduct only small operations — restaurants, barber shops, other basic services — but not the kind of export-driven businesses that would generate significant economic independence.
"If you open a shoe factory and sell to Europe ... sure, that is going to help the economy, but that isn't what we're talking about. If you open a pizza parlor, that's not going to help the economy," Suchlicki says.
The U.S. has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba since shortly after Fidel Castro took power on the island in 1959. American businesses are barred from operating in Cuba, and most Americans are restricted from traveling there. The restrictions were passed by Congress, which means any significant changes must be approved by Congress.
However, presidents have the authority to change some things. Shortly after taking office, Obama expanded the ability of Cuban Americans to visit relatives in Cuba and increased the amount of money they can send back, resulting in a record $2.6 billion in remittances sent to Cuba in 2012.
He expanded the ability of other Americans to visit Cuba on a variety of visas, such as religious, educational and cultural exchanges, leading to nearly 100,000 U.S. citizens visiting the island in 2012. Obama also allowed any American to send up to $500 a quarter to Cubans who are not senior Communist officials. Members of #CubaNow want Obama to increase that limit to get more money into the hands of some of the nearly 450,000 Cubans who have started small businesses on the island.
#CubaNow is trying to build on a shift in thinking in the Cuban-American community that has been more accepting of changes to the embargo.
"This reflects a shift we've seen at the polls and in polling that's taken place in the Cuban-American community over the last decade, and it has potentially significant political consequences," says Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager and a former political adviser.
Suchlicki says Obama is already facing so many struggles on the world stage, such as the Russian incursion into Ukraine, and would get so much backlash from conservative Cuban Americans in Congress that he is unlikely to dive back into Cuba policy.
Herrero says, "The president has already taken a few steps earlier in his administration to help foster greater engagement between Americans and the Cuban people. After five years, we've seen that these changes have had a positive and palpable impact in Cuba. It's time for us to really build on that foundation."