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.

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