January 23, 2013
Matthew Aho, Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor
John Kerry is expected to be confirmed soon as U.S. secretary of state. During his tenure in the Senate, Kerry has criticized U.S. programs aimed at fostering democracy in Cuba and proposed opening up U.S. travel to the island. Will having Kerry as secretary of state affect U.S. relations with Cuba? Will President Barack Obama's first-term moves to ease some travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans lead to additional relaxed restrictions in his second term? To what extent would looser restrictions toward Cuba present business opportunities for U.S. firms? Which industries could benefit?
While John Kerry's views on U.S.–Cuba relations have favored engagement over isolation, ultimate authority rests with a White House that has proceeded cautiously on Cuba during President Obama's first term.
Aside from easing some travel restrictions, there have been only two emergent themes on Cuba policy: support for private-sector efforts to increase the flow of information to the Cuban people; and support for private economic activity on the island.
Cuba policy changes still require expenditures of political capital disproportionate to the island's strategic and economic importance. Barring game-changing developments—such as release of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross—executive action during Obama's second term will likely focus on furthering goals laid out during his first. Here, however, John Kerry's leadership could prove vital and create new opportunities for U.S. business.
In 2009 the White House directed the Treasury and Commerce departments—in consultation with State—to authorize U.S. telecommunications firms to negotiate international roaming agreements with Cuba. This would allow U.S. travelers to use their cell phones on the island and presumably increase communications flows with Cuba. It would also generate some new revenue for U.S. firms.
Three years later, there's still no agreement—partly because federal agencies haven't clearly communicated how they will handle industry proposals to establish one. This issue may seem insignificant, but in the context of U.S.–Cuba relations it would be an historic first. Kerry could sit down with industry to revisit this issue to help finally get an agreement signed.
Kerry could also encourage the president to make other common-sense, executive-branch changes within the scope of current policy, such as allowing U.S. travelers to access basic financial services and purchase insurance products to ensure their safety and wellbeing while in Cuba; or remove regulatory impediments to U.S. farm exports.
Despite constraints to major change, John Kerry will have ample opportunity to move the needle forward. The question is whether the new secretary of state will stick to his past convictions on Cuba.