In December of last year President Obama announced what many had predicted he wanted to do since his first inauguration day – restore U.S. relations with Cuba. Six years into his presidency and hamstrung by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which codified President John F. Kennedy's Executive Order establishing the Cuban embargo, President Obama went as far as he could through his own Executive Order to remove impediments to U.S. relations with Cuba. The President's initiative allows more Americans to travel to Cuba and spend more U.S. dollars in Cuba - including the use of credit and debit cards, an increase in the amounts of remittances that can be sent to residents of the island, the establishment of correspondent accounts in Cuba by U.S. banks, and more liberal financing opportunities for the limited goods that can be shipped to Cuba by U.S. companies today. Further on President Obama's agenda is the reestablishment of diplomatic ties including the opening of embassies and the appointment of an Ambassador to Havana. Bilateral talks are currently under way to facilitate those developments. The President is also clearing one obstacle to the establishment of diplomatic ties by removing Cuba from the State Department's list of countries that support terrorism, which becomes effective on May 29.
In a private sector development, it was reported, and confirmed by an official at the U.S. State Department, that Cuba recently secured access to an account at a U.S. bank in Florida, marking the first such relationship in some time.
All of this is not without controversy or opposition. The Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are generally opposed to the President's vision for future U.S. - Cuba relations. As part of the FY 2016 appropriations process, policy riders and other provisions challenging the President's plans for Cuba are being offered. These include restrictions on spending appropriated funds to block the licensing of flights and cruise ship routes to Cuba if the airports and docks are located on property confiscated by the Castro regime. Other riders may be attached in the future to block treasury regulations relating to financial institutions or to block the expenditure of funds to establish a U.S. Embassy. (The current Cuban Interest Section in Havana will likely serve as an embassy, making it harder to completely foreclose the establishment of something that serves as an embassy.) And since the Senate must approve all ambassadors, the Republican-controlled Senate could well stymie any attempt by President Obama to appoint an Ambassador to Cuba before the end of his term.
The bottom line: President Obama can only go so far to restore relations with Cuba without statutory authority. The Republican-controlled House and Senate will not give him that authority and moreover will use the appropriations process to try to block as many of his initiatives as they can. Although tourism and financial institutions will see some benefit, President Obama's current policy is of limited benefit to most U.S. businesses.