Friday October 9, 2009
ANALYSIS – Domestic challenges put brake on U.S.-Cuba thaw
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) – U.S.-Cuba relations have warmed under U.S. President
Barack Obama, but domestic political and economic problems weighing on
both governments are likely to slow any major progress in ending 50
years of hostility.
For both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, change in the
relationship is fraught with uncertainties that neither wants to risk at
a time when they face major challenges at home, Cuba experts said.
Some are predicting Obama will put off any significant initiatives on
Cuba until and unless he wins a second term in 2012, and no longer has
to worry about getting re-elected.
Obama has spoken of his desire to "recast" long-frosty U.S.-Cuba
relations, but he is wrestling with the global recession, two wars and a
grinding political battle over healthcare, all in the face of fierce
Raul Castro, 78, who took over the presidency of communist-ruled Cuba
last year from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro, 83, is struggling
to revive and reform the Cuban economy that has been hit hard by the
The younger Castro is attempting politically sensitive reforms of the
socialist economy to boost productivity and ease the financial weight of
expensive social benefits.
"It's a period of exploration on the part of both sides. I don't get a
sense that either side is in a hurry," said Phil Peters, vice president
of the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
Obama's election in 2008 raised expectations for change after eight
years of escalating bitterness between the Cuban government and his
predecessor, George W. Bush.
Since taking office he has removed limits on Cuban-Americans traveling
and sending remittances to the island, and initiated talks on migration
issues and the possible resumption of direct mail service, broken off
since 1963 between the two countries just 90 miles (145 km) apart.
But he also has said the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba,
the main point of contention between the two countries, should stay in
place until Cuba releases political prisoners and improves human rights.
His steps thus far have been welcome, but also disappointing for those
who hoped for more, including the Cuban government. It blames the
embargo for many of its economic woes, but also has insisted it will not
negotiate with the United States on human rights.
PLAYING SAFE POLITICALLY
"These measures are a positive step, but they are extremely limited and
insufficient," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said in a Sept. 30
speech to the United Nations.
U.S. experts say Obama's Cuba measures have been politically safe, and
calculated not to anger the anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Miami
as he looks toward 2012.
Although their influence has waned in recent years, Cuban-Americans
opposing any unilateral rapprochement with the Castros have
traditionally been a force in U.S. politics and a bulwark of support for
the Republican Party.
"You don't want to test the proposition that you don't need the Miami
Cubans to win Florida. They are not what they were 10 years ago, but
they are still formidable," said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a political
scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Doing nothing to change the U.S.-Cuba relationship has no political cost
to Obama and avoids "the noise" of opposition that comes with doing
something, he added.
Obama recently signed an annual renewal of the law that imposes the U.S.
embargo on the island and earlier this year kept Cuba on a list of
On Oct. 28, the United Nations General Assembly will vote on Cuba's
annual resolution calling for an end to the embargo — the non-binding
anti-embargo vote has gained overwhelming international support for
successive years — and Washington is expected to cast its increasingly
isolated vote in opposition.
Washington attorney Robert Muse, a specialist in Cuba issues, said he
thinks "as of now, the White House political guys have decided they are
not going to do anything on Cuba because Florida will be a tight election."
"It's my thesis that Cuba policy is over for this term, and we'll be
hearing 'wait until his second term, he'll be free to act then,'" he said.
That could be good news for Cuban leaders, who see both advantages and
disadvantages to improving relations with the United States. While they
constantly decry the embargo, they may be in no hurry to see it
completely disappear, said Benjamin-Alvarado.
"I don't think the Cubans want abrupt change, I think they want a kind
of phased transition. It would be too chaotic if there was an abrupt
change," he said.
The end of the embargo, which would require new legislation by the U.S.
Congress, would "immediately put the onus for the Cuban economy on the
Cuban government," Peters said.
There are bills currently before the U.S. Congress that would eliminate
the embargo's travel ban to Cuba for most Americans and may soon come up
for a vote.
"I think the travel bill will pass the House, I'm less optimistic about
the Senate, where there is a lot of opposition," said Wayne Smith,
former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, now at Washington's
Center for International Policy. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Beech)
ANALYSIS – Domestic challenges put brake on U.S.-Cuba thaw (9 October 2009)