Obama Moving Cautiously Toward Normalization With Cuba

Sunday’s announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Washington will begin talks with Cuba on bilateral migration issues and resume direct postal service between the two countries suggests the new administration of President Barack Obama intends to proceed cautiously toward normalizing ties with the Caribbean nation, according to veteran experts .

The announcement, which Clinton made while visiting El Salvador for Monday’s inauguration of its new president, Mauricio Funes, came on the eve of the annual General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Honduras, where Cuba’s proposed readmission to the hemispheric body is likely to dominate the proceedings.

It also came six weeks after Obama lifted all restrictions on Cuban Americans to visit their homeland and send money to family members in what was regarded as the first major step toward the new president’s campaign promise to engage Havana.

"We’ve made more progress in four months than has been made in a number of years," Clinton bragged to reporters in San Salvador Sunday. "We need to work together to continue that kind of progress, keeping in mind the legitimate aspirations and human rights of the people in Cuba."

But analysts said the resumption of migration talks, which had been suspended under former president George W. Bush in 2003, was the least that Obama could do, particularly after his speech last month at the Summit of the Americas where he cited immigration explicitly as one of the key issues on which he was prepared to engage.

"He should’ve started these talks the day after his inauguration," said Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, who has long worked to normalize ties between the two nations as a fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP).

"They still need to remove the restrictions on academic and scientific exchanges and people-to-people programs and issue visas to Cubans so they can come here for academic conferences and the like; it seems like they haven’t even thought of that yet," he noted.

Smith added, however, that the resumption of the immigration talks, as well as an apparent agreement to also address drug interdiction and hurricane relief efforts on a more formal basis than before, showed that the new administration was "at least moving."

William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University, echoed Smith’s analysis, noting as well that the decision to restore direct postal service was a "logical follow-on" to Obama’s decision to end restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to their homeland.

But he said the latest announcement showed that Obama wanted to move cautiously on Cuba and suggested that the fact it occurred just before the OAS meeting was not coincidental.

"Just as they relaxed the restrictions on Cuban Americans just before the Summit of the Americas, now they are offering migration talks just before the OAS meeting," he said. "It seems clear that they’re trying to inoculate themselves from criticism by Latin Americans about Cuba policy and at the same time avoid picking political fights with [anti-Castro] forces at home. It’s calculated."

How much the new measures will provoke opposition remains to be seen, but they did succeed in gaining the endorsement of one key group, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).

"This is a very positive development and something that our organization has recommended," said Francisco Hernandez, CANF’s president.

The latest exchanges between Havana and Washington were initiated May 22, when the State Department delivered a diplomatic note to the Cuban Interests Section asking to resume migration talks. Washington received a positive reply Saturday, according to a senior State Department official.

In their reply, the Cubans said they were also willing to engage in talks with Washington regarding counter-terrorism, drug trafficking, hurricane relief, and direct postal service. Clinton said Sunday she was "very pleased" with the response.

Clinton was in San Salvador as part of a three-day swing through the region beginning with Funes’ inauguration Monday and culminating in the first day of annual OAS meeting Tuesday in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

The readmission of Cuba into the hemispheric body will almost certainly be the most controversial issue at the OAS meeting. Significantly, as one of his first acts as president, Funes, the leader of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerrilla group, is expected to announce the normalization of relations between El Salvador and Cuba, leaving the U.S. as the only nation in the hemisphere without full diplomatic ties with Havana.

Largely at Washington’s behest, the OAS suspended Cuba’s membership in the OAS in 1962, one year after the Central Intelligence Agency’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and a month before Washington imposed its trade embargo against the island.

Virtually all of Latin America’s leaders, including OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza, have called for Havana to be reinstated as a full member, despite the fact that the government of President Raul Castro has denied any interest in rejoining an organization that it calls "that decrepit old house of Washington."

The OAS headquarters, built by Andrew Carnegie, is located just off the Ellipse within shouting distance of the White House.

The Obama administration has said it is willing to end Cuba’s suspension but that its formal readmission should be conditioned on Havana’s implementing political reforms that meet the requirements of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Last week, the OAS permanent council formed a small working group to come up with a compromise that most observers believe will result in lifting the suspension and beginning talks with Havana over the terms of its readmission.

"None of the parties involved oppose ending Cuba’s suspension, and so the issue is, will Cuba want to rejoin the OAS and what kind of discussion needs to happen to make that possible," said Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Anti-Castro forces are mobilizing against readmission. "The U.S. position has been firmly rooted in the promotion of freedom and democracy for the Cuban nation," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee whose district includes "Little Havana" in Miami.

"We have clearly said that Cuba should not participate in regional groups until there is a freely elected, fully participatory, democratic government in power in Cuba," she said.

But Thale said efforts by Washington to insist on major democratic reforms in Cuba risked harming its relations with other, more important Latin American countries.

"This issue is a litmus test for virtually the entire continent," said Thale. "Everyone else has decided that the way to deal with the issue is to engage in diplomatic relations, and it doesn’t behoove us to threaten the only regional organization of which we’re a member."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.