The Obama administration can’t end the Cuban embargo unilaterally, much of which exists in statute. They can, however, work around Congress to weaken and shrink the embargo, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced new regulations today to do just that. The new rules expand banking and communications between the US and Cuba, although it will be interesting to see just how open the Castro regime will allow the latter to become:

The United States on Friday issued regulations easing restrictions on American companies seeking to do business in Cuba and opening up travel in the latest move to weaken the U.S. trade embargo amid warming relations with the Communist country.

The rules target travel, telecommunications, Internet-based services, business operations, banking and remittances, and allow U.S. companies to establish a presence in Cuba. …

Under the rules, companies can open up offices, stores and warehouses in Cuba. They also allow the opening up of telecommunications and Internet services between the nations.

Although they do not change who can travel to Cuba, the rules do ease movement of authorized travelers there by licensing transportation providers. They also lift the cap on remittances and allow them to open and maintain bank accounts there.

The Castros will take the expanded access to the US banking system. Communications will be a different story. Tourists might get better access to the Internet under that arrangement, but don’t expect the regime to allow broader access to global information to the Cubans themselves.

That has been among the reasons why Congress has resisted calls to ease or lift the embargo as Barack Obama normalized diplomatic relations with the Castros. The main purpose of the embargo was to pressure them into improving their human-rights record, a point many seem to have missed:

[T]he new rules don’t authorize privately financed trade or change restrictions on who can travel to the country as the U.S. is reestablishes diplomatic dialogue after more than 50 years.

President Obama is using executive authority to ease barriers to trade and travel between the two countries, announcing initial eased restrictions back in January of this year.

Congress has shown resistance to lifting the longstanding Cuban embargo, and leaders from both sides of the aisle have continued to voice concern over its human rights record.

Nevertheless, Obama told businessmen in the US to press Congress to end the embargo:

President Barack Obama appealed to U.S. businessmen in a meeting Wednesday to press members of Congress to lift the U.S.-Cuba embargo.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to keep sticking to the old ways of doing business,” the president said, referring to the embargo, at the Business Roundtable Headquarters in Washington D.C., according to EFE.

His effort to shift the next – and what would be the final – chess move in the push to end the 53-year-old embargo dovetails with the launching of a new campaign by the public policy group Engage Cuba that entails taking the fight to lift the embargo to the home districts of members of Congress.

“For too long, a small minority of status quo defenders sidelined the voices of the vast majority of the American people who support a change in U.S.-Cuba policy,” said James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, in a statement. “Engage Cuba will work on the ground in the states to ensure elected officials in Washington know where their constituents stand.”

So suddenly big business is a force for good? That seems like a bit of a shift from Obama’s position on, say, the US Chamber of Commerce.

In this case, Obama has a pretty good argument. The 50-year-plus embargo has clearly not succeeded in loosing the grip of the Castros nor on improving the life of Cubans, and our allies have not even bothered to try. Ending the embargo might deprive the Castros of the last excuse for the misery of Cubans suffering under their thumb by demonstrating that Yanqui stubbornness was never the problem.

The problem, in the short run at least, is that the infusion of cash and investment will bolster the Castro regime at the expense of the people we want to help and therefore extend their misery. Congress could demand some reforms in exchange for lifting the embargo, but Obama’s pressure is undermining what little leverage they have left. We’re throwing out the only pressure we have in an attempt to give Obama yet another legacy point for his presidency. At least this one, unlike Iran, doesn’t create an existential threat to anyone except the Cubans.

Update: The start of the post should have read “The Obama administration can’t …” I left out the word “administration,” but it’s now fixed.