Friday, June 21, 2013

Cuba, US try talking, but face many obstacles

Cuba, US try talking, but face many obstacles
By PAUL HAVEN, Associated Press
Updated 11:31 pm, Thursday, June 20, 2013

HAVANA (AP) — They've hardly become allies, but Cuba and the U.S. have
taken some baby steps toward rapprochement in recent weeks that have
people on this island and in Washington wondering if a breakthrough in
relations could be just over the horizon.

Skeptics caution that the Cold War enemies have been here many times
before, only to fall back into old recriminations. But there are signs
that views might be shifting on both sides of the Florida Straits.

In the past week, the two countries have held talks on resuming direct
mail service, and announced a July 17 sit-down on migration issues. In
May, a U.S. federal judge allowed a convicted Cuban intelligence agent
to return to the island. This month, Cuba informed the family of jailed
U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross that it would let an American
doctor examine him, though the visit has apparently not yet happened.
Castro has also ushered in a series of economic and social changes,
including making it easier for Cubans to travel off the island.

Under the radar, diplomats on both sides describe a sea change in the
tone of their dealings.

Only last year, Cuban state television was broadcasting grainy footage
of American diplomats meeting with dissidents on Havana streets and
publically accusing them of being CIA front-men. Today, U.S. diplomats
in Havana and Cuban Foreign Ministry officials have easy contact, even
sharing home phone numbers.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba's top diplomat for North American affairs, recently
traveled to Washington and met twice with State Department officials — a
visit that came right before the announcements of resumptions in the two
sets of bilateral talks that had been suspended for more than two years.
Washington has also granted visas to prominent Cuban officials,
including the daughter of Cuba's president.

"These recent steps indicate a desire on both sides to try to move
forward, but also a recognition on both sides of just how difficult it
is to make real progress," said Robert Pastor, a professor of
international relations at American University and former national
security adviser on Latin America during the Carter administration.
"These are tiny, incremental gains, and the prospects of going backwards
are equally high."

Among the things that have changed, John Kerry has taken over as U.S.
secretary of state after being an outspoken critic of Washington's
policy on Cuba while in the Senate. President Barack Obama no longer has
re-election concerns while dealing with the Cuban-American electorate in
Florida, where there are also indications of a warming attitude to
negotiating with Cuba.

Cuban President Raul Castro, meanwhile, is striving to overhaul the
island's Marxist economy with a dose of limited free-market capitalism
and may feel a need for more open relations with the U.S. While direct
American investment is still barred on the island, a rise in visits and
money transfers by Cuban-Americans since Obama relaxed restrictions has
been a boon for Cuba's cash-starved economy. Under the table,
Cuban-Americans are also helping relatives on the island start private
businesses and refurbish homes bought under Castro's limited free-market

Several prominent Cuban dissidents have been allowed to travel recently
due to Castro's changes. The trips have been applauded by Washington,
and also may have lessened Havana's worries about the threat posed by

Likewise, a U.S. federal judge's decision to allow Cuban spy Rene
Gonzalez to return home was met with only muted criticism inside the
United States, perhaps emboldening U.S. diplomats to seek further
openings with Cuba.

To be sure, there is still far more that separates the long-time
antagonists than unites them.

The State Department has kept Cuba on a list of state sponsors of
terrorism and another that calls into question Havana's commitment to
fighting human trafficking. The Obama administration continues to demand
democratic change on an island ruled for more than a half century by
Castro and his brother Fidel.

For its part, Cuba continues to denounce Washington's 51-year-old
economic embargo.

And then there is Gross, the 64-year-old Maryland native who was
arrested in 2009 and is serving a 15-year jail sentence for bringing
communications equipment to the island illegally. His case has scuttled
efforts at engagement in the past, and could do so again, U.S. officials
say privately. Cuba has indicated it wants to trade Gross for four Cuban
agents serving long jail terms in the United States, something
Washington has said it won't consider.

Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College in
New York who helped organize a recent U.S. tour by Cuban dissident
blogger Yoani Sanchez, said the Obama administration is too concerned
with upsetting Cuban-American politicians and has missed opportunities
to engage with Cuba at a crucial time in its history.

"I think that a lot more would have to happen for this to amount to
momentum leading to any kind of major diplomatic breakthrough," he said.
"Obama should be bolder and more audacious."

Even these limited moves have sparked fierce criticism by those long
opposed to engagement. Cuban-American congressman Mario Diaz Balart, a
Florida Republican, called the recent overtures "disturbing."

"Rather than attempting to legitimize the Cuban people's oppressors, the
administration should demand that the regime stop harboring fugitives
from U.S. justice, release all political prisoners and American
humanitarian aid worker Alan Gross, end the brutal, escalating
repression against the Cuban people, and respect basic human rights," he

Another Cuban-American politician from Florida, Rep. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, scolded Obama for seeking "dialogue with the dictatorship."

Despite that rhetoric, many experts think Obama would face less
political fallout at home if he chose engagement because younger
Cuban-Americans seem more open to improved ties than those who fled
immediately after the 1959 revolution.

Of 10 Cuban-Americans interview by The Associated Press on Thursday at
the popular Miami restaurant Versailles, a de facto headquarters of the
exile community, only two said they were opposed to the U.S. holding
migration talks. Several said they hoped for much more movement.

Jose Gonzalez, 55, a shipping industry supervisor who was born in Cuba
and came to the U.S. at age 12, said he now favors an end to the embargo
and the resumption of formal diplomatic ties. "There was a reason that
existed but it doesn't anymore," he said.

Santiago Portal, a 65-year-old engineer who moved to the U.S. 45 years
ago, said more dialogue would be good. "The more exchange of all types
the closer Cuba will be to democracy," he said.

Those opinions dovetail with a 2011 poll by Florida International
University of 648 randomly selected Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County
that said 58 percent favored re-establishing diplomatic relations with
Cuba. That was a considerable increase from a survey in 1993, when 80
percent of people polled said they did not support trade or diplomatic
relations with Cuba.

"In general, there is an open attitude, certainly toward re-establishing
diplomatic relations," said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research
Institute at Florida International University. "Short of perhaps lifting
the embargo ... there seems to be increasing support for some sort of
understanding with the Cuban government."


Associated Press writers Christine Armario in Miami and Matthew Lee in
Washington contributed to this report.


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