Despite Americas Summit, US-Cuba Ties Still in Limbo?

Despite a growing sense of anticipation coming out of the Trinidad Summit of the Americas last weekend regarding the possibility of a historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations, specialists here remain uncertain about how and even if that breakthrough will be achieved.

The uncertainty revolves around the question of whether the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is prepared to take further unilateral steps to ease the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo and normalize diplomatic relations — or whether it will first insist that Havana reciprocate in some way for those moves it announced just before the summit.

"The Cuban leadership is fundamentally ambivalent about engaging with the United States, so they’re not prepared to make concessions to support greater normalization," according to Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), an influential think tank here. "And so far it seems like the Obama administration is still wedded to the idea that the U.S. should take incremental steps and wait for positive responses from the Cuban government."

"So there’s still this essential deadlock about how far the U.S. is willing to go without a response by the Cubans," said Erikson, author of a 2008 history of modern U.S. Cuba relations entitled The Cuba Wars.

Most analysts here believe that the domestic U.S. debate over Cuba policy has shifted decisively in favor of those forces who have argued that Washington’s nearly 50-year effort to isolate the Caribbean island has utterly failed to bring about the changes that it was designed to achieve.

The strength of the new consensus has been made evident not only by the plethora of reports published by the country’s most influential foreign policy think tanks, including the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, over the past year, calling on Washington lift the trade embargo, if for no other reason, than to improve ties with other Latin American and Caribbean countries.

But it has also been demonstrated by calls by senior Republicans, notably the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, for normalization of ties with Havana, and by a series of recent polls of Cuban Americans — historically those citizens who have been most strongly opposed to normalization — that show a sharp shift in sentiment in favor of engagement.

Indeed, in a December poll of Cuban Americans in Florida’s Miami-Dade County — the traditional bastion of fierce anti-Castro sentiment — three out of four respondents said they felt the embargo had not worked well or at all, and an even higher percentage said they favored direct talks between Washington and Havana on issues of bilateral concern.

Another survey of Cuban Americans nationwide released Monday by the same polling firm, Bendixen & Associates, found that two out of three respondents believed that all U.S. citizens should be permitted to travel to Cuba and an even split between those who favored lifting the embargo altogether and those who believed it should continue.

Evidence of changed opinion — and indeed growing anticipation of real change — regarding U.S.-Cuban relations was also on display here Wednesday at the Washington release of a new Brookings report by a 19-member task force that included a broad range of Cuban Americans that called for a "policy of critical and constructive engagement" with Havana.

Indeed, the co-chair of the task force, Brookings vice president Carlos Pascual, a Cuban American who is considered all but certain to become Obama’s ambassador to Mexico, said the latest survey results marked a "sea change" in the Cuban community’s views and one of which the Obama administration should take advantage.

"Our people are looking to this new administration with the greatest expectation," declared Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, a veteran of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the lobby group that led the drive to tighten the embargo against Cuba during the 1990s in hopes of bringing down the Communist government after the collapse of its most important financial supporter, the Soviet Union.

While his group has not yet endorsed ending the embargo altogether, it called two weeks ago for lifting curbs on cultural and other exchanges, and resuming regular bilateral meetings on migration and other issues, among other measures to increase U.S. engagement and assistance to Cuba.

Despite the broad consensus that the embargo has been a failure, however, Obama has thus far proceeded cautiously; indeed, more cautiously than many of his supporters and advisers had expected. On the eve of the summit, he fulfilled his campaign promise to lift restrictions on the rights of Cuban Americans to travel to the island and to send money to their relatives there. He also announced that he would lift curbs on U.S. telecommunications companies to provide services to their Cuban counterparts.

At the summit itself, Obama declared he sought "a new beginning with Cuba," adding that he was also "prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues."

What remained unclear, however, was whether those further steps — and how many of them — Obama was prepared to take if Cuba failed to respond positively. Indeed, "senior administration officials" who briefed reporters at the summit appeared somewhat uncertain themselves, asserting, on the one hand, that "the ball was in Cuba’s court," and, on the other, that Washington would likely take further unilateral measures regardless of Havana’s response.

Most analysts believe that if Obama insists on some reciprocity, the process will almost certainly stall. "If the administration says, ‘it’s now the Cubans’ turn, and they have to end the tax on remittances or free political prisoners’, that will be a non-starter," according to Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "The Cubans have made pretty clear they won’t respond to humanitarian gestures alone, and that’s basically all that Obama has done so far — that and give a nice speech."

"The Cuban position is that the embargo is the U.S.’s problem, and if the U.S. wants to lift the embargo, it should do it but shouldn’t look to the Cubans to make concessions to make that happen," Erikson told IPS.

How Havana responds to the telecommunications offer may also be very important, according to William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University who participated in the Brookings task force. "If they don’t (respond), if they say ‘we don’t want anything to do with that’, it will make it harder for Obama to do more because it suggests that the Cubans are not interested in being co-operative," he told IPS.

At the same time, all three experts said they believe the administration will likely repeal curbs imposed by former President George W. Bush on cultural, educational and other citizen travel to Cuba and press ahead on the diplomatic front, notably in seeking resumption of bilateral talks on migration and on other issues cited by Obama in his Trinidad speech. In remarks welcomed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just before the summit, Cuban President Raul Castro said Havana was prepared to engage diplomatically on any of those issues, although his brother, former President Fidel Castro, subsequently stressed that that offer had been "misunderstood."

In its report, the Brookings task force called for Obama to press ahead on normalization through a series of short-term, medium-term, and long-term initiatives culminating in full diplomatic relations, including an accord on the restoration of Cuban sovereignty over Guantánamo Bay, regardless of Havana’s response.

"If the Cuban response is not encouraging, (the administration) might carry out only a few of the suggested initiatives or lengthen the time frame," according to the report. "However, it is important that (it) continue to move toward a full normalization of relations, because doing so would most effectively create conditions for a democratic evolution in Cuba."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.