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March 03, 2009

Three Cheers for Executive Authority
Posted by Jake Colvin

Jake Colvin is a fellow with the New Ideas Fund and Vice President of Global Trade Issues at the National Foreign Trade Council. 

For the past eight years, it is hard to imagine too many people clamoring to point out ways that the president could more forcefully utilize his executive authority, particularly with respect to foreign affairs.  But with a new occupant in the White House comes new recommendations, which have put a spotlight on the president’s prerogative to conduct foreign affairs.  This is especially true with respect to Cuba.

As changes swirl in Havana and the Obama administration conducts a review of current policy, there is a new charge to dispel the idea that the president is restricted in his ability to alter the terms of the embargo on Cuba because of laws enacted by Congress.  Ambassador Vicki Huddleston and Carlos Pascual of the Brookings Institution are the latest to take on this “popular myth and public misunderstanding” in a recent op-ed in the Miami Herald.  As the two note, and as a new roadmap produced by Brookings describes, “the president can effectively dismantle” the embargo through his executive powers. 

In a paper for the New Ideas Fund released in December, I made a similar case, arguing that,

The Obama administration should look beyond the false perception encouraged by current and former U.S. officials that virtually any change in U.S. policy must begin with Congress. Congress has a role to play, but it is unlikely to alter Cuba sanctions in any significant way without prodding from the president. Change—whether unilateral action, diplomatic initiatives towards Cuba or U.S. allies, or multilateral initiatives—can and should be led by the White House.

President Obama retains wide discretion to make significant changes to U.S. Cuba policy, as Presidents Clinton and Bush demonstrated.

The Bush administration used its authority to exempt U.S.-origin cell phones – which are subject to “anti-terrorism” export restrictions by the Commerce Department – to Cuba, a country that the State Department says is a sponsor of terrorism.  As a former Undersecretary of Commerce for Export Administration told me, “From a licensing standpoint, this is a major step.  Items subject to the [Commerce Control List] are controlled for a reason…the move…highlights that discretion over licensing policy extends far beyond things like toothpaste or baseball gloves.”

During his time in office, President Clinton administration changed the rules to permit Cuban Americans to visit and send money to relatives in Cuba even though the moves expressly contradicted the sense of Congress in the 1996 legislation known as the Helms-Burton Act. 

The Obama administration easily could tear away large pieces of the embargo through executive orders.  The president has the ability to take a variety of steps, from exempting goods such as agricultural machinery or computers from U.S. sanctions to allowing imports of Cuban agricultural products, which could improve the lives of the Cuban people, and which -- in the approach to the Summit of the Americas in April -- would send a signal to the world that change has come to U.S. foreign policy.


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For Cuban agricultural products.I would like to share some moment of my life.I was 16 years old when Castro came to power in Cuba. In the intervening half-century I have come to realize our country didn't oppose him because he was a brutal, repressive dictator (which he most certainly was), but rather that he was not OUR brutal, repressive dictator.

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