Jim Avila and Serena Marshall | ABC News | January 20, 2015
President Obama will tell members of Congress at tonight’s State of the Union he has done all he can do to normalize relations with Cuba and only they can lift the 50-year-old embargo, sources told ABC news.The president will say it’s the right thing to do and will make his case again to the American people that the embargo is failed policy and it’s time to engage Cuba.
He will not explicitly tell Congress to lift the embargo, but instead will use the time and pulpit to sell his idea that opening full diplomatic relations with the island nation is in America’s national interest and will help Cubans move toward more freedoms.
In the audience, sitting with first lady Michelle Obama will be Alan Gross, the 65-year-old government contractor who was held prisoner in Cuba for five years. He endorses normalization.It’s a big week in Cuba, as a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations begins.
The first congressional delegation since the announcement last month of Gross’ release reset relations between the two countries, locked in a cold war for five decades, met with Cuban officials Monday to discuss next steps.
“Fifty-four years of policy was changed overnight,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, referring to Obama’s executive order at a news conference capping off their visit. “It was remarkable and I believe, long overdue event, but what we did on this trip was meet with people from agriculture to technology, to Cuban arts, to Cardinal Ortega who had worked with me and others to facilitate the Vatican discussion with Pope Francis and President Obama.
“And we wanted to become more knowledgeable but we had to all almost keep saying to ourselves. It’s [only] been one month.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of six congressional delegates who came to Cuba this week, said, “We are moving to a new era. It is a dramatic development and it’s more than opening trade and travel between the United States and Cuba; it’s the question of opening up a relationship and the exchange of ideas. Any of us believe that ideas are compelling, compelling when they come to basic human values and human rights.
“Opening up Cuba and opening up a relationship with the united states gives us a chance to move forward in this hemisphere,” he added.
Leahy and Durbin – along with Sen Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Rep Christopher Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. – arrived Saturday to meet with Cuban officials, dissidents, and everyday citizens, and hear what they envision normalization to mean in their lives.
After the State of the Union address, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson arrives in Havana to negotiate the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, as well as migration and restoration of full diplomatic relations. She’s the first high-level State Department official to visit the country in three decades.
Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department laid out the dos and don’ts of travel to the island nation.
With the president’s executive order, U.S. airline carriers will be allowed to fly in and out of Cuba, not just as chartered flights.
And individual Americans, not just tour groups, will be able to purchase tickets to come on those flights if they promise their visits are religious, cultural, family or charity based, and not just a beach romp.
In Cuba, the atmosphere is upbeat, while everyone is skeptical that real change will happen fast, but nevertheless surprised at the progress.
And while change in Congress may not happen overnight, the congressional delegation also remains hopeful.
“I think we can put 50 years of cold war behind us in Cuba and move forward in a better way to make the relationship stronger,” Durbin told ABC News.
“It’s not going to happen quickly,” he said. “I don’t believe it will. It takes some time. But I believe when we start testing this issue. In the Senate for example, with votes we are going to find members coming forward on both sides. There was a time not that many years ago when 60-plus members of the Senate, in both political parties, said let’s expand agricultural trade with Cuba. Even in the depths of the embargo and blockade.
“So there is openness to ideas,” he added. “And I think those ideas will build a consensus.”