Obama extends Trading with the Enemy Act, Again
Well, I can't say it was any big surprise. Yesterday, President Obama renewed his authority under the otherwise defunct Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) of 1917, which would have otherwise expired on September 14, 2010. In plain English, this means President Obama renewed the U.S. embargo on Cuba for another year.
Bear with me as I wonk out for just a moment, and recall how I explained this obscure presidential declaration last year:
Keep in mind that everything the President - any US President - does must have its foundation in some law giving the office broad or specific authority to act. Back when President Kennedy first declared the embargo, he had broad authority to declare national emergencies and leave them there - often far past their use and beyond the reach of congressional oversight.
So, in 1977, Congressional scaled back that authority for future national emergencies; but it grandfathered in existing authorities (such as the one for the Cuba embargo) as long as the President determined, on a yearly basis, that continued exercise of that authority was still in the national interest. President George W. Bush last signed this determination on September 12, 2008. (Note that Cuba is the only country against which sanctions derived from the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act are still in place.)
And so for close to 3 decades now, the embargo remains in place because of a yearly presidential determination that it ought to.
Last September, Amnesty International, one of the Cuban government's staunchest human rights critics, but also one of the U.S. embargo's staunchest opponents, issued a clever call for President Obama to decline to renew his TWEA authority. Had he heeded the call, it wouldn't have simply wiped away the embargo, much of which now codified into law (but it would have called into question the legal standing of some of the most important and sweeping parts of it, like the travel ban). President Obama also would have made a bold foreign policy statement, by making a clean break with the United States' single most ridiculous and demonstrably failed foreign policy, and possibly even shaking up the annual U.N. vote in which every country except Israel and a small island in the South Pacific, votes to condemn it. But Amnesty's call went unheeded, the U.N. voted 187 -3, and President Obama, who six years ago opposed the Cuba embargo, officially came to own it.
Nevertheless, Amnesty International sent another letter to Mr. Obama last month, reasoning this time that not renewing his authority would "surely be welcomed by many US citizens keen to travel to and engage with Cuba. It would also send a clear message to Congress, that after 50 years of tension, new avenues should develop in the relationship with Cuba."
It's true that by signing that piece of paper yesterday, President Obama again missed a chance to send a positive, constructive signal on Cuba policy. But it's not too late. Maybe he's got another signal in mind, one that would make a tangible change right now, by again allowing the kinds of people-to-people cultural travel to and contacts with the Cuban people that President Clinton encouraged more than a decade ago (and which President Bush closed down in 2003).
By using the limited authority he has to ease the current travel restrictions, President Obama would assuredly encourage Congress to take the final step - as only Congress can do - and end the counterproductive travel ban for all, not just for some, Americans.
This post was also featured on The Huffington Post.