Since the death of Fidel Castro on November 25, 2016, scholars and reporters alike have attempted to predict what will come next for the country of Cuba. Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign and Raul Castro’s promise to step down from his role as leader of Cuba in 2018 have added to the speculations on the fate of Cuba. Many have suggested that, perhaps when Raul Castro steps out of power and Trump’s presidential term has come to an end, the United States’ relationship with Cuba could continue to normalize as it has under the Obama administration. However, it is not just Raul Castro’s continuation in power for the next year or President-Elect Trump’s potential policy towards Cuba that might impede the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. The Libertad Act, also known as the Helms-Burton Act, is another factor to be considered.
The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996 was established after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Act’s purpose was to strengthen international pressure on the Cuban government by reinforcing and fortifying the sanctions on the Cuban government by law. Because this was a law passed by Congress, relations between Cuba and the United States cannot be fully normalized until either the demands in this Act are met or the law is repealed. The likelihood of the law being repealed is very low at this time, given that Republicans are strongly opposed to Cuba and United States relations, but it is even less likely that the requirements for normalization of relations in the Act will be met.
The Libertad Act states that the President can only take action to normalize relations after “submitting a determination to the appropriate congressional committees under section 203(c)(1) that a transition government in Cuba is in power.” It is only after a “transition government” is established can the President end the economic embargo that has been placed on Cuba. The issue remains, however, with what the Libertad Act defines as a “transition government.“ While some requirements have already been met or will be met by 2018, such as the removal of both Fidel and Raul Castro from power, others seem almost impossible to imagine. For instance, one demand of the Act requires Cuba to completely dissolve the Department of State Security in the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, which serves as the law enforcement of the Castro government. Given that Communist Party of Cuba will still be in power even after Raul Castro steps down, and for an unknown number of years to come, it seems unlikely that the Party will give up the military might that established and has maintained their power for generations. In addition to abolishing parts of the Cuban Ministry of Interior, the Act also requires the President to take into account the extent to which the Cuban government has allowed those who fled Cuba when Castro first took power in 1959 to return to Cuba and be reinstated as citizens. The Act also requires the President to consider whether the Cuban government has started to take steps to return the property seized in Cuba in 1959 to the United States’ citizens who used to own it. Any reinstatement of citizenship or compensation of property seized by the Cuban government would be seen by the Communist Party of Cuba as the ultimate sign of weakness and a betrayal to the Cuban Revolution, as it would mean giving into the demands of the Western powers of the world.
It is because of the high demands of the Libertad Act in the eyes of the Cuban government, specifically Communist Party of Cuba, that it is unlikely the economic embargo will be lifted in the near future. Even if Raul Castro steps down from power in 2018 and the President who is elected in 2020 supports Cuban and United States relations, the Libertad Act still stands in the way of the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. Only if and when the Act is removed from law, or when the requirements of the Act are met, will there be a possibility of the economic embargo on Cuba being abolished. This, however, is unlikely to occur any time soon.