President Obama addresses Cuba embargo deal

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President Barack Obama gave what some may consider one of the most impactful speeches of his presidency Wednesday. In a deal reached between the Obama administration and Cuba, the United States could be taking its first steps toward lifting the long-standing embargo with the island nation to our south.

The deal will loosen travel and trade restrictions between the United States and Cuba. While the embargo will still be in place and tourism is still a no-go, it will be easier for Americans and Cuban Americans to obtain licenses to do business and travel to Cuba. Banking restrictions will be eased, allowing those who do travel to Cuba the ability to use credit and debit cards. There’s also a provision allowing some imports of Cuban cigars and alcohol.

In return, Cuba will release 53 American prisoners and U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. The country will increase access to the Internet for its citizens and grant United Nations access to the country.

President Obama addressed the deal during a historic speech Wednesday. He called the embargo an “outdated approach” and said there will be talks with Congress to begin the process of lifting the embargo.

“No other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions,” Obama said. “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

He compared the Cuba embargo to the United States’ relations with China. Both are communist nations, but the U.S. does not restrict trade and travel with China. He also pointed out that sanctions and restrictions have been lifted on Vietnam.

Obama seems poised to make this an issue during his final two years in office. But reactions in Congress imply it may not be an easy feat.

In a statement from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio earlier this week, he wrote, “The President’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable. Cuba’s record is clear. Just as when President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Castro family still controls the country, the economy and all levers of power. This administration’s attempts to loosen restrictions on travel in recent years have only served to benefit the regime.”

In another reaction, GOP Congressman-elect Carlos Curbelo called the move an “affront” to Congress. The issue is potentially most relevant in Florida, where Cuba is only about 90 miles south of Key West. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, seemed ambivalent in his response, saying the success of Obama’s deal depends on Castro’s “willingness to grant basic democratic freedoms.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is expected to react to the news this afternoon.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.