On the morning of Wednesday December 17, 2014, President Obama spoke through the phone to Cuban President Raul Castro about ending the United States-Cuban embargo, and improving diplomatic relations between the two countries. The phone call was a response to the Cuban government releasing two American prisoners; Alan Gross, a contractor arrested in 2009, and an unnamed United States intelligence agent who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades. In return, the United States released three Cuban spies that were being detained in a federal prison out of Florida.
Following the phone call, President Obama gave a speech at the White House expressing the intent of the conversation, and his desire to normalize relations with Cuba and the Castro regime. The president called upon congress to open serious debate and discussion about ending the half-century embargo, citing the ineffectiveness of the isolationist approach the United States has adopted for the past 50 years. In his speech President Obama said, “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries” and, later stated, “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”
The embargo will not be lifted today, or perhaps anytime soon, that decision ultimately lies with Congress, who has been increasingly critical of Obama administration decisions as of late. Although through executive action, there are some key political moves, aimed at improving United States-Cuban relations, that President Obama can utilize. For starters a United States embassy will be established in the Cuban capital, Havana, for the first time in 50 years. In more palpable terms, the United States will begin to ease restrictions on Cuba in forms of remittances, travel purposes, and banking relations.
Previously, remittances from an United States citizen to a Cuban nationalist was restricted at $500 every three months, but following predicted executive orders, this amount will be raised to $2000 every three months. In addition, the intermediaries sending the money will no longer be required to obtain a license to send the remittances. Now looking at the easement of travel restrictions, it will now be easier for citizens of both countries to travel between the nations. Family visits, official visits, journalistic, professional, educational, and religious travelling, and public performing, are all on the list to experience flexible restrictions. 
President Obama and his administration are also working to ease banking relations in Cuba. Action is being taken to allow the use of American debit cards in Cuba, to help spur economic relations between the two nations. In addition American travelers will now be allowed import up to $400 in Cuban goods, including $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. (Good news for you Cuban-cigar lovers out there)
So what does this mean for improving the American interest and achieving the goal of the embargo 50 years ago—to bring democracy to a country under control of an oppressive regime?
One cannot deny the oppressive nature of the Castro regime, and the blatant human rights deficiencies in their government, but have those violations of American and democratic principles ever stopped the United States from involving themselves in trade with countries of the sort? The answer is no. On countless occasions the United States has traded and worked with authoritarian and communist regimes alike. Take China for example, the 1970s-China that Richard Nixon opened relations with was not exactly a model for democracy and capitalism, but now look how far they have come in reaching those idealized notions of democracy and capitalism. China is by no means inherently democratic, but they are exponentially closer to democracy than they were 40 years ago.
With the lifting of the Cuban embargo, and actions aimed at improving diplomatic relations with Cuba, similar hopes are desired. Through trade and a presence in the United States economy, Cubans will increasingly rely on capitalistic societies for economic prosperity. With this comes the Cuban people seeing the freedom and liberty United States citizens enjoy, and this inevitably translates into increased political pressure on the Castro regime to ease restrictions in their own society. In the short term, there is no palpable effect towards relieving oppressed citizens in Cuba, but in the long term the motive is clear, increased reliance on capitalistic societies will necessarily result in increased democracy in Cuba.
The actions being taken right now by the Obama administration to increase the amount families can send in remittances do have some immediate effects. In addition to individual families being able to help their loved ones in less fortunate circumstances, there are also notable effects on the economy. The increase in remittance amounts allows for the Cuban economy to be bolstered at a grass roots level. Meaning, individual families, and persons, in Cuba will have more capital to put back into the economy through buying goods and services. In a country with a crippled economy, bolstering it from the bottom up can have increasingly significant effects.
By: Neil Harrington
To see how potential 2016 presidential candidates view the Cuban Embargo, see:
New York Times covering the story:
Cuban benefits from economic relations with America:
CNN’s LZ Granderson’s take: