Optimism Marks Future for U.S.-Cuba Relations

The dawn of President Obama and twilight of the Castro brothers' rule has shifted discussion on U.S.-Cuban relations in both countries and around the world from whether they will improve to how quickly and how far normalization might proceed.

Outside the Copelia ice cream parlor in downtown Havana, the young people waiting to be served recently were all smiles, twinkling eyes and talkative when asked about Obama.

They had great expectations.

"It is hard to imagine life without the embargo but we will know it soon enough," Carlos Diaremos, a Havana University student, said with a big grin as ellow students around him nodded in agreement.

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U.S. congressional staffers have been passing through Havana this year to get the lay of the land. All agree change is in the wind but will take time and begin with increased cooperation in areas of mutual interest such as the environment, drug trafficking, immigration. Perhaps Cuba will be taken off the State Department's terrorist list.

Richard Lugar of Indiana, the leading Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this week called for a full review of U.S. policy toward the communist-run Island, a loosening of travel restrictions and increased cooperation in security-related areas.

Organizations that have worked for years in the U.S. Congress to lift sanctions on Cuba reported that corporations and business groups that had been discouraged and intimidated into silence by the Bush administration now feel free to lobby Congress and the president.

The American Farm Bureau, American Society of Travel Agents, National Retail Association, American Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and many other organizations have already called for an end to the trade embargo, especially in light of Cuba's economic problems.

A bill eliminating all travel restrictions to Cuba has already been introduced in Congress this year and is given a fair chance of passage.

Adding to expectations that fundamental change is near are demands from Latin America that sanctions end, and a gradual shift in the traditional uncompromising attitude toward the island in Miami, home to close to 1 million Cuban-Americans.

Rolling Back Bush-era Measures

"I believe that the style of the Obama administration lends itself to giving up the regime change policy and adopting one of critical and constructive engagement," said Vicki Huddleston, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the last years of the Clinton administration and first of the Bush administration.

The two countries do not have diplomatic relations but maintain lower level representations in each other's capitals.

"I think we should act unilaterally and do what is in our interests because greater human contact, broader flow of information, and better lives for Cubans will, in my view, lead to a more open Cuba, and removing the U.S. threat shifts the onus for change from Washington and Miami to Havana," said Huddleston, who served on Obama's transition team on Africa.

Obama has already announced he would lift restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to their homeland and sending money to relatives, and he is expected to quickly roll back Bush-era measures that limit contact between professionals from both countries and end its provocative and threatening rhetoric.

Western diplomatic sources said initial changes would be announced before Obama meets with regional leaders at the Americas Summit in Trinidad and Tobago in April.

A group of U.S. experts received quick approval from the Obama administration to attend a geology conference in Havana next month, the organizers of the event told Reuters.

Obama has ordered a review of Cuba policy, but says he will hold on to the trade embargo for now to pressure Cuba, a position he may well have to soften if he hopes to truly engage Havana even as ever more strident demands from Latin America and the United Nations to unilaterally lift sanctions test his pledge of international partnership.

"Obama is too intelligent to ignore the "Pink Tide," the election of 11 socialist or social democratic governments, "in Latin America in recent years and more than a decade of near unanimous votes against the embargo in the United Nations," said John Kirk, a Latin American expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Latin American Steps Up the Pressure

Brazil, seen as key to Washington's strategy of holding back the revolutionary trend in the area represented by governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and elsewhere, has been particularly strident.

"I hope the blockade of Cuba ends, because it no longer has any justification in the history of humanity,'' Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in November at an area summit that welcomed Cuba back into the fold and apologized for allying with the United States against the island in the past.

The presidents of Panama, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Venezuela have visited Havana since November, with Honduras expected in March and Mexico in April.

Cuban President Raul Castro, 77, and former President Fidel Castro, 82, have heaped praise on Obama while trying to dampen expectations that he will radically change U.S. policy at home or abroad as they position the country for inevitable talks.

"We won't respond to the carrot and stick, but are ready to make gesture for gesture," Raul Castro has repeatedly said.

Rafael Hernandez, a leading Cuban intellectual and editor of the oft-critical Temas Magazine, said normalization was inevitable and opened up new opportunities and risks for his country.

"The biggest challenge Cuba faces in the coming years is normalization of relations with the United States," he said.

"That will be something we are not used to after the 50 years of threats and sanctions we have suffered but also grown accustomed to."