THE BLOG
01/01/2015 10:06 am ET Updated Mar 03, 2015

The Breakthrough With Cuba: How It Happened and What Happens Next

For weeks, rumors had been swirling around Washington and Havana that changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba were in the works. Then, on December 17, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro made simultaneous announcements of a radical change in relations between the two countries. Not only would USAID subcontractor Alan Gross and the three remaining Cubans spies of the Cuban Five be going home -- which was the deal most observers had anticipated -- but Cuba and the United States also would expand trade and travel, and restore full diplomatic relations.

Although President Obama had said repeatedly that he thought the old policy of isolation and hostility toward Havana no longer made any sense, for six years he did little to change it. Then in one announcement, he reversed 50 years of U.S. policy, completely revamping the basic framework and premises of the relationship. What happened to finally break the log-jam?

First, the political calculus changed. Recent polls from the Atlantic Council and Florida International University showed that the public in general and Cuban-Americans in particular supported reconciliation between Washington and Havana. Comments by prominent exiles like Alfie Fanjul and the Barcardi family expressing a desire to do business in Cuba showed that even stalwart anti-Castro leaders in the community were ready for change.

Hillary Clinton's public declaration that the embargo ought to be lifted, and former Governor Charlie Crist's promise to go to Cuba during his gubernatorial run indicated that seasoned politicians recognized the shifting mood of the electorate. Weighing the evidence, the White House concluded that Cuba was no longer the third rail of Florida politics. And of course, Obama doesn't have to run for re-election anyway.

The president deferred to Florida Democrats by not acting until after the mid-term elections, just as he did in 2010 when he delayed announcing more liberal travel regulations until January 2011. But the political decision to do something on Cuba had already been made and negotiations with Havana were already underway.

Most of the foreign-policy establishment concluded long ago that Washington's policy of hostility toward Havana made no sense, but because Cuba was a low priority issue during Obama's first term, establishment figures rarely spoke out about it -- until they began to sense that the policy was in flux. When 44 former U.S. government officials signed an open letter to the president in May 2014 urging him to deepen U.S. engagement with the island, Cuba-watchers speculated that something must be afoot. Hardliners who opposed any change in U.S. policy (except to make it tougher) thought so, too, because they counter-attacked with a letter of their own signed by 17 members of Congress urging Obama to stand firm.

Then the New York Times editorial board weighed in with not one but six editorials urging dramatic changes in policy toward Cuba. The unprecedented barrage of long, tightly argued pieces reverberated across the country, prompting both the Washington Post and Miami Herald to run counterpoints urging Obama to leave the policy of hostility in place. Surely, the rumor mill speculated, the venerable New York Times would not run such a series of editorials without at least talking with administration officials. And surely they would not waste so much ink if the White House signaled that the policy was set in stone. Ergo, the policy must be ripe for change.

With a Republican Congress, Obama had no choice but to rely on executive authority to make the opening to Cuba. His willingness to use that power expansively on immigration reform implied that he realized any achievements during his last two years in office would have to be made despite Congress rather than with it. The Republican threats of lawsuits and appropriations cuts over immigration reform did not deter him from flexing his executive muscles yet again on Cuba, even if it meant throwing gasoline on the partisan political fire.

Among Obama's initiatives is a directive to Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba's inclusion in the State Department's list of countries that sponsor international terrorism. Presumably, Kerry will remove Cuba from the list since there's no sensible rationale for it still being there. But taking Cuba off the terrorism list requires notification of Congress, which will give the likes of Senators Bob Menendez, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz a forum and an opportunity to lambast Obama's new policy. During the early December confirmation hearing for Tony Blinken, Obama's nominee to be Deputy Secretary of State, Menendez threatened a "very significant response" if the president changed Cuba policy without first consulting him.

The other opportunity for the senators to howl will come when Obama nominates our new ambassador to Cuba. But even if Menendez and Cruz keep the nomination bottled up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they cannot prevent the president from re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Article II of the Constitution vests that power exclusively with the president.

Having just coauthored a book with Peter Kornbluh on secret diplomacy (Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana), I wondered in the weeks leading up to the historic announcement whether secret talks might already be underway with Cuba. Now we know that these talks followed a classic pattern: only a handful of officials knew about the negotiations; the talks were held outside the country to avoid discovery; and the bargaining went on for months to produce an accord. But the scope of the resulting agreements is unprecedented in U.S.-Cuban relations, and the negotiators on both sides deserve enormous credit for bringing the talks to fruition.

In April, the presidents of the Americas will convene in Panama for their Seventh Summit, and for the first time Cuba will be included. Obama's new Cuba policy is extraordinarily popular in Latin America, and the good will it has engendered will go far to revitalize U.S. relations with the entire hemisphere. The summit will also give Raúl Castro and Barack Obama an opportunity to talk in person about the next steps in the new relationship.

When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, the world breathed a sigh of relief that U.S. policy was finally getting back in touch with reality. On December 17, Barack Obama took an equally bold step by finally ending the cold war in the Caribbean. The reaction at home and abroad has been overwhelmingly positive, a few churlish conservative critics notwithstanding. Many loose ends remain to be tied up before the United States and Cuba will have fully normal relations, but a new chapter has been opened, and the idea of going back to the past already seems ridiculous and impossible.

William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University and coauthor with Peter Kornbluh of the recent book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com (subject line: "90 Miles").