By David Ariosto, CNN
October 26, 2010 -- Updated 0906 GMT (1706 HKT)
* Cuba is making economic reforms and releasing political prisoners
* But it may not be enough to fix relations with the U.S.
* Washington is focused on upcoming elections with could see the balance
of power shift
* The continued detention in Cuba of an alleged U.S. spy is another obstacle
Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- A young Cuban man slouched against his city's
famous sea wall, enjoying fall's cool breeze and thinking about the
world little more than 90 miles north.
"A lot of people died in that sea trying to make it to the other side,"
Yoandri Perez, 20, said, while resting along the Malecon, a concrete
partition and six-lane highway that holds back the Florida straits from
the Cuban capital.
"It's very difficult here. The economy is bad and now they're cutting
jobs," he said, enjoying the seasonal shift of cooler weather and rough
seas. "But at least the Malecon is a place where we can come to relax."
More than 1,300 miles north, another possible shift is under way. In
Washington, as midterm campaigning is peaking, powerbrokers are
discussing the effects of a possible change in the balance of power in
One thing that isn't being discussed: Cuba.
"People on the Hill are just not focused on Cuba," said Sarah Stephens
of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based group
that advocates an end to the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo.
"Right now they have the votes [to end the travel ban], but after
November it's a whole new ball game."
And President Barack Obama, who pledged "a new beginning" in relations
with Cuba, has made few changes since loosening Treasury restrictions in
"We already initiated some significant changes around remittances and
family travel. But before we take further steps, I think we want to see
that in fact the Castro regime is serious about a different approach,"
the U.S. president said last week.
Obama said he was interested in more openings with Cuba, but the Castro
government must first do some shifting of its own.
Last year, the president made a similar pledge.
"What we're looking for is some signal that there are going to be
changes in how Cuba operates that assures that political prisoners are
released, that people can speak their minds freely ... and do the things
that people throughout the hemisphere can do and take for granted," he
said during a 2009 interview with CNN en Espanol.
The island has since released dozens of political prisoners and
announced massive public sector layoffs to pave the way for free market
enterprise intended to create new jobs for its former state workers.
"What we're now left with is a president on the hook," said Phil Peters
of the Washington-based Lexington Institute. "He said if there were
positive developments he would respond, and now we're seeing the release
of political prisoners and some pretty significant economic changes."
Senior U.S. officials and congressional sources told CNN the White House
had been considering further relaxing regulations, but had been
persuaded to hold off until after the November midterm elections.
Republicans are expected to pick up seats in both the House and Senate,
leaving the White House with the possibility of facing a Congress more
opposed to changing U.S.-Cuba policy.
"The political costs of getting these [changes] out are higher," said
one congressional source, suggesting the administration might now trim
the package that was being fashioned over the summer. "The question is
how much stomach at the White House is there to take that hit?"
Peters said that with the U.S. still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and
still reeling from a global financial crisis, "Cuba is not a high priority."
"But I think the White House will respond because Obama's word is on the
line," Peters added.
In September, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez accused Obama of
failing to keep his promise, saying that far from easing regulations,
the U.S. administration had tightened the enforcement of trade restrictions.
"The president has fallen far short of the expectations created by his
speeches," Rodriguez said in the Havana news conference, stressing the
reach of U.S. sanctions on international business and Cuban trade.
"The true impact of the embargo is not just a bilateral impact," said
John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "It isn't
Cuba's inability to access U.S. markets, it's Cuba's inability to access
foreign exchange and the U.S. ability to manipulate private companies
and some governments in their relationship with Cuba."
Despite the U.S. trade embargo, which Cuba calls "a blockade," the
United States is the island's leading source of food and agriculture.
In 2000, the U.S. allowed American farmers to sell food and farm
products directly to Cuba. A bill passed eight years earlier permits the
shipping of medical supplies although red-tape has often slowed the
delivery of goods.
While the White House cannot lift sanctions without congressional
approval, some analysts believe the real obstacle to improved relations
is Alan Gross, an American jailed in Cuba on suspicion of spying.
Gross, 60, had been working for a USAID subcontractor called Development
Alternatives Incorporated (DAI) when he was arrested at Havana's
international airport on December 3, 2009.
His continued imprisonment -- although he has not been charged --
prompted one of the highest-level diplomatic exchanges between the two
countries in recent years.
During the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month, U.S. Assistant
Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela spoke with Cuban Foreign Minister
Rodriguez in a meeting intended to "encourage the release" of Gross.
Cuba is one of a handful of places -- including Iran and Myanmar --
where the U.S. funds what it calls democracy-building initiatives
without the host country's permission.
USAID -- the U.S. Agency for International Development -- came under
intense scrutiny in 2006 and 2008 as a result of reports by the U.S.
Government Accountability Office that identified potential misuse of
U.S. grant money to promote Cuban democracy.
DAI, where Gross was working, does not receive those grants but is a
USAID subcontractor engaged in Cuba to "strengthen civil society in
support of just and democratic governance," according to a statement
from the company's president and chief executive Jim Boomgard.
Gross' continued imprisonment and the potential fallout from the
upcoming U.S. election may already have cooled what had once appeared to
be a warming of relations.
CNN's Deirdre Walsh and Dan Lothian contributed to this report