Tuesday, September 25, 2012

US-Cuba relations make little progress

September 25, 2012 3:09 pm

US-Cuba relations make little progress
By Marc Frank in Havana

When Barack Obama won the US presidency in 2008, many believed he would
make significant progress in Cuban relations, so resolving one of the
last conflicts of the cold war.

But four years later, US-Cuba relations remain stuck in much the same
time warp, and whether Mr Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney
becomes the next US president, few expect a significant breakthrough –
although the region's changing ideological landscape could prompt the
beginnings of a shift.

Mr Obama lifted all restrictions on Cuban American visits soon after
taking office, and in December 2010 reversed a Bush Administration ban
that led to a surge in so-called people-to-people visits, which are for
educational purposes rather than tourism. But he has also stepped up
financial sanctions under anti-terrorism laws, and this year issued
tough new travel guidelines.

"The US position on Cuba continues to undercut our strategic position in
the region and a breakthrough would greatly enhance Obama's foreign
policy legacy through solving a problem far simpler than many other
global issues," said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow on Latin America at
the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"There is no question that Obama's first term disappointed many when it
comes to Cuba, but I think it premature to assume this status quo under
a second term," she added.

Mr Romney, if he wins, is, meanwhile, expected to tighten travel and
adopt a more aggressive public stance towards Havana, encouraged by
powerful Cuban-American legislators in the key electoral state of Florida.

The two countries' latest, seemingly intractable, conflict is over the
fates of jailed US contractor Alan Gross and five Cuban intelligence
agents. Mr Gross was arrested in 2009 for participating in a US project
to set up an internet platform covertly in Cuba. He is currently serving
a 15-year sentence.

The Cuban agents were imprisoned in the US 14 years ago for infiltrating
exile organisations and military installations in Florida. Following Mr
Gross' arrest, immigration and mail service talks restarted under Mr
Obama were again suspended, and US diplomats say there will be no
progress until Mr Gross is released.

Another factor limiting improved US-Cuban relations is the conservative
tide that washed over Washington after the 2010 Congressional elections
and that brought Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio to office and
saw another hard-line Cuban American, congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,
appointed head of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Both lawmakers
oppose contact with Cuba and are particularly incensed by
people-to-people exchanges.

"This is nothing more than tourism . . . a source of millions of dollars
in the hands of the Castro government that they use to oppress the Cuban
people," Mr Rubio charged during congressional hearings last year.

As many as 400,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2011, with as many as
70,000 of them not of Cuban heritage. They may have boosted the
government, but were also important clients for the hundreds of small
businesses that have opened in Cuba – part of Havana's broad, if
hesitant, market-oriented reforms.

Mr Rubio, according to his office, then blocked the administration's
nominee for undersecretary of state for Latin American affairs, Roberta
Jacobson, until it agreed in March to roll back the travel programme.
Tougher new regulations quickly followed.

"Under the new guidelines, applications often run to more than 100
pages, compared with just a few when the people-to-people programme
began, and they are usually sent back for not meeting vague criteria,"
said Bob Guild, vice-president of Marazul Charters, the oldest US
company taking people to Cuba.

Although pro-embargo forces are expected to remain a strong influence in
Congress even if Mr Obama wins, some advocates of a new Cuba policy hope
he will use executive privilege to get round them.

One factor that could change the state of play is if Cuba is taken off
the list of state sponsors of terrorism – as the US State Department did
with North Korea in 2008 and Libya in 2006 – for helping broker peace
talks between the Colombian government and the country's Marxist Farc
rebels. If the Farc lay down their weapons that could help lead to Mr
Gross' release, opening the way for further advances.

"With the peace talks of the Colombian government with the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) under the partial sponsorship of Cuba,
it will be very difficult to keep Cuba on the terrorism list," Tony
Zamora, a Miami-based lawyer, anti-embargo activist and Bay of Pigs
veteran, said. The first round of peace talks is due to begin in Oslo on
October 8, and continue in Havana.


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