Washington, DC - It is an axiom of American government and politics that presidents, blocked by opponents in Congress at the end of their term in office, turn to foreign affairs, a field in which the executive wields greater authority.

In announcing a joint decision with President Raul Castro on Wednesday to boldly reverse US policy towards Cuba with two years left in his presidency, Barack Obama is proving no exception.

"This is going to be a major part of President Obama's foreign policy legacy,Julia E Sweig, director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera. 

"When you go to his presidential library 10 years from now in Chicago there is going to be a big Cuba exhibit, because this is going to be front and centre, not only in a Latin America context, but maybe overall."

Congressional opposition

For half a century, US policy has been to isolate Cuba politically and economically. While Obama's move is a sharp reversal in direction, it is likely to produce only incremental advances in economic and social engagement with Cuba, until Congress repeals the US' long-standing trade embargo.

"In one of the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interest, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries," Obama said in televised remarks from the White House.

Obama will face opposition in Congress where anti-Castro lawmakers in the Republican Party take majority control next year. But lifting the embargo may gain momentum after the 2016 US presidential election, particularly if Cuban-American voters in Florida, a key presidential state, shift sentiment towards engagement as recent election results suggest is already happening.

"The reconciliation between Cuba and Miami-based Cubans has largely proceeded along generational lines," Harold Trinkunas, director of the Latin American Initiative at Brookings, told Al Jazeera. "Younger Cuban-Americans and more recent Cuban arrivals are less likely to favour strict US policies against Cuba."

Located just 140km (90 miles) south of Key West in the Caribbean, Cuba is an island nation of 11 million that has been largely cut off since 1961 and the CIA's failed "Bay of Pigs" invasion designed to topple Fidel Castro.

The US and Russia came to the brink of nuclear war over the placement of ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962. Since the retirement of Fidel Castro and the coming to power of his brother Raul in 2008, Cuba has undergone significant change.

The move's impact

Now, by executive authority, Obama is ordering the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with the reestablishment of an embassy in Havana and exchanges of official delegations. Changes to treasury and commerce department regulations will expand travel to Cuba and allow more money transfers from Americans to friends and family in Cuba, currently at an estimated $2bn annually.

The agreement between Obama and Castro will allow US telecommunications firms to build broadband infrastructure in Cuba to provide better internet access. Only one in 20 Cuban citizens has internet access today. Obama will allow more commercial sales of building materials for residential construction, goods and services for small businesses, and agricultural equipment for small farmers. 

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, blasted the president's decision calling it a "dangerous and desperate attempt to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people's expense".  Rubio, a native of Miami whose parents were Cuban immigrants, said he would use his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to try to block reopening the US embassy in Havana.

Europe now is involved in a deep political dialogue that is going to result in more investment by its member countries, and I think Cuba has kind of reserved a slice of that portfolio for the United States.

- Julia E Sweig, Council on Foreign Relations

The US trade embargo on Cuba was codified by a 1996 law - Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Helms-Burton Act. It was passed overwhelmingly by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton.

The law gave the president specific authority to waive enforcement provisions. Both former presidents Clinton and George W Bush used waivers to avoid conflict at the World Trade Organisation with the European Union.

"The liberalisation policies aimed at easing trade and remittances to Cuba is another propaganda coup for the Castro brothers who will now fill their coffers at the expense of the Cuban people," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a 13-term Florida Republican who was the first Cuban-American elected to Congress and who led efforts to enact Helms-Burton. 

Congressional action won't be required to implement what Obama plans to do through executive order, analysts said. Instead, he simply needs enough support in Congress to uphold a potential veto to prevent Republicans from reversing his decision.

"Opening the door with Cuba for trade, travel, and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve," said Senator Dick Durbin the No 2 Democrat in the Senate and a powerful Obama ally in Congress. 

Why now?

The breakthrough in relations between the US and Cuba came after months of secret negotiations prompted by appeals from Pope Francis and facilitated by Canada. Analysts say the recent economic struggles of Venezuela amid a global decline in oil prices helped push Cuba towards the US now.

"You see players other than Venezuela coming in, most prominently Brazil, China, some Russia, a little bit of Mexico," Sweig said in a conference call with reporters. "Europe now is involved in a deep political dialogue that is going to result in more investment by its member countries, and I think Cuba has kind of reserved a slice of that portfolio for the United States."

A Miami protester holds a sign that reads 'Obama coward' [AP]

Latin heads of state have been urging Obama for years to open diplomatic ties. Brazil and other Latin American countries had threatened not to participate in the Summit of the Americas planned for April in Panama if Cuba was to be excluded.

Part of the agreement, Obama said, allows for Cuban civil society representatives to attend the summit, as well as an official Cuban government delegation. 

Key to the deal was an exchange of prisoners including Alan Gross, a former USAID contractor imprisoned for five years for providing computers and mobile phones to Jewish community groups in Cuba, as well as an unnamed US spy held by Havana for the past 20 years.

The US released three Cuban prisoners and Obama said Castro promised to release a list of political prisoners in Cuba.

"The executive authorities the president has embraced and is going to use to go forward have been on the books for a couple of decades," Sweig told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera