By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, Aug. 29 (IPS) – Normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States – separated by an almost a half century of conflict – will take time, but there is potential and a favorable atmosphere for them coming together, concluded on Friday an influential American politician who visited Havana for five days.
Bill Richardson, governor of the southwestern US state of New Mexico, called himself optimistic, despite recognizing that any easing of tension between the two countries is complex and will require discussions around a host of issues. In his opinion, eventual humanitarian exchanges could be the starting point for dialogue.
During his stay, Richardson held two meetings with the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, and held talks with senior-level officials of the ministries of foreign affairs, trade and science. Shortly before his return to the US, the governor told journalists that his mission in Cuba had been primarily “commercial.”
Richardson also clarified that he had not traveled to Cuba as a representative of the Obama administration, though he said he would present his recommendations to the president. “There is a very good atmosphere, a better one than I’ve seen in many years for mending relations,” he commented, adding though that the two countries have to make “concrete steps” in that direction.
The US politician visited Cuba for the first time in 1996, when he was received by then president Fidel Castro and secured the release of three prisoners being held by Cuban authorities on political grounds.
This time he did not meet with the “historical leader of the Cuban Revolution,” nor with his younger brother Raúl, who assumed the presidency in February last year.
Richardson said he did receive “a message from Fidel Castro, a personal one, that they gave me my last night,” in Cuba. The governor said that his delegation had been informed in Washington that there would be no meetings with President Raul Castro or with former leader Fidel Castro, who appeared well recovered in a recent videotape.
Richardson is in favor of making “modest steps” of a humanitarian nature before diving into more complicated matters such as “political prisoners” or the American embargo (what Cuba calls a “blockade,” affirming that this action has caused losses of over $90 billion to the island since its imposition in 1962).
In his opinion, the “American side” needs to pay more attention to Latin America and Cuba, while on the “Cuban side” it is important that there be “more flexibility in its positions, more reciprocal actions, especially in the humanitarian area.”
On August 1, Raúl Castro reiterated his willingness to enter into dialogue with the United States, but not to negotiate on the island’s political or social system. “We are not requesting that the United States do that. We should mutually respect our differences,” indicated the leader, who also defended the humanitarian situation of his country.
Richardson suggested that Washington immediately implement measures previously announced in March relating to the relaxation of sanctions against travel and remittances toward Cuba by Cuban residents in the United States. Likewise, he called for the expansion of permits for US citizens to travel to the island, as well as regulatory relief for exchanges and travel by Cuban citizens to his country.
As for Cuba, it should relax restrictions so that its nationals can travel to their neighbor country and it should consider accepting the American proposal to allow more freedom of movement to diplomats from the two nations, that is to say, for the Cubans at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and for those from the United States at the US Interests Section in Havana, he specified. The two nations do not have diplomatic relations, but in their respective capitals the “Interests Sections” are in charge of consular matters and certain other details. In both cases, officials and staff are restricted in their movement within their destination country.
As a final suggestion for Cuba, Richardson mentioned the beginning of dialogue between Havana and the Cuban community residing in the United States.
The American governor clarified that this is not to substitute for dialogue between the two governments; “But I think that to be successful in this effort, Cuban-Americans should be involved in the discussions,” Richardson said, after acknowledging that he had met with exiles days prior to his trip.
Analysts consulted by IPS considered this initiative as the less realistic and more unlikely one. “I might be mistaken, but I see this as very difficult. Plus, you can talk with whomever, about whichever and whatever interests, but the Cuba-US dispute is a bilateral issue – between Washington and Havana,” said the source.
The visit by Richardson followed by a few days that of a group of American bishops, headed by Catholic Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of the northeastern city of Boston, who staying in Cuba between August 17 and 21 and who also met with Cuban legislative leader Alarcon.
According to sources close to that delegation, the issues covered between the delegation and the president of Cuba’s parliament touched on Cuba-US relations and “the role” that the Catholic Church can play in the relaxation of tensions. The prelates also made public their rejection of the embargo measures.
Last April, Democratic Party Black Caucus legislators who traveled to Havana to explore possibilities for a coming together between the two countries, concluded that one can speak on “any issue” with Cuba and that “the time has come to do just that.”
That delegation held a more than four-hour meeting with President Raúl Castro, and some of its members also spoke with Fidel Castro, though he had stepped down from power since July 2006 due to serious health problems.
Havana Times translation of an IPS feature written in Spanish.