Analysis: Cuba waiting and watching Obama


Published: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 3:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 3:24 p.m.

HAVANA Amid two wars and an economic crisis, Cuba policy hardly ranks at the top of President Barack Obama's long agenda.

But circumstances are pressuring Obama to make a move on Cuba soon or miss an opportunity to advance his pledge to restore America's leadership in the world and in its own hemisphere.

Conversations with Cuban officials here suggest that unless the Obama administration signals its intentions quickly and clearly, it will disappoint not only Cuba, but also many Latin American leaders watching for signs that the U.S. is ready to chart a dramatic new course in the region.

The unofficial target for action seems to be late April, when Obama travels to the Summit of the Americas, being held on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Cuba is not invited, but will nonetheless be on many participants' minds.

More frequently than in the past, Latin American leaders have been flocking to Cuba in recent months, and late last year 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations called for an end to the U.S. embargo. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colon, leading a country long viewed as a loyal U.S. ally, even apologized during a recent visit for his country's supporting role in the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

Fundamental change in the long-calcified Cuban-American relationship appears possible now because of the dual change in leadership in Havana and Washington.

In Cuba, an ailing Fidel Castro relinquished the presidency to his younger brother Raul, who has spent the past year maintaining the country's socialist system while delivering modest adjustments and coping with the destruction wrought by three hurricanes. Any hopes that the post-Fidel era would lead to a rapid unraveling of Communist rule have faded.

In Washington, Obama won the presidency in a campaign in which he pledged a willingness to speak to America's rivals and enemies. Also, the voting indicated that the hard-core anti-Castro groups in the United States are less key to electoral success, reducing their ability to block closer relations.

During a visit to Cuba last week by news executives of The Associated Press, Cuban government officials refused to speak publicly on the topic. That in itself could be a sign of how critically important they consider this period: The government does not wish any isolated comments to impede potential progress.

An air of expectancy is palpable, especially after a U.S. Senate staff report Feb. 23 issued by Richard Lugar, the influential Indiana Republican who is the ranking member of the foreign relations committee. It stated what would seem obvious to many: that the 50-year U.S. policy of shunning communist Cuba by imposing a strict trade embargo has failed to produce significant change in the island's government.

Lugar says it is time to re-evaluate the policy of trying to isolate Cuba economically, and deal with it "in a way that enhances U.S. interests."

While Cuban officials do not agree with everything in the Lugar report, it was widely viewed here as positive. However, Cubans also have a long memory. Havana and Washington have periodically been on the verge of breakthroughs, only to watch those efforts be derailed by events.

And Cubans note that Obama has specifically said he favors keeping the embargo, although he wants to ease restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to their homeland and sending money and gifts to relatives.

With Obama's foreign policy team still coming together, Cuba sees itself as sitting in the stands, waiting for the match to begin. From a Cuban perspective, the first serve goes to the U.S. side. Cubans take the position that they have always been open to overtures from the U.S. for better relations, but not at any cost.

Economic relations with the U.S. could certainly make life easier for the country's 11 million people, making food and other imports cheaper and opening possibilities for greater tourism and investments.

Concerns about human rights and political freedom in Cuba and Cuba's support for leftist guerrilla movements have been the main reasons cited by American presidents since John F. Kennedy for attempting to isolate the Caribbean nation.

As President Jimmy Carter moved towards easing relations, a public furor erupted in late 1978 over the presence of MiG 23 jets inside Cuba, and the window of opportunity slammed shut. Again during the Clinton years, Cuba's downing of two civilian planes sent towards Cuba by an anti-Castro group in Florida arrested possibilities for progress in 1996.

The eight years of George W. Bush, which saw U.S.-Cuban contacts at a recent low, have come to a close. At the very least, it's easy to envision a return to some of the contacts and negotiations that existed in earlier decades, even with the embargo in place. If Obama reaches out to Cuba, the thinking goes, Cuba will be waiting to take his hand.

Meanwhile, some of the rhetoric from Washington that used to fall on Cuba seems to be shifting to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the U.S. critic who after 10 years in power just won a referendum removing limits on the number of times he can run for re-election.

Cubans warn the Obama administration against repeating the same mistakes with Venezuela that the U.S. made with Cuba. The risk, they say, is that Washington could find itself in the same position decades down the line, trying to extricate itself from a diplomatic impasse.

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