By PATRICIA GROGG
HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 27 (IPS) – The new U.S. administration headed by Democratic President Barack Obama is creating hope in Cuba for an easing of tensions in relations between the two countries, although there is skepticism in this regard in some academic circles.
“With every day that goes by, I am less optimistic about the scope of the changes that Obama can make in relation to Cuba,” Luis Rene Fernandez, deputy director of the Centre for Studies on the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU) at the University of Havana, told IPS, although he recognized that a shift away from confrontational politics would be positive.
In his view, “in spite of the recommendations of top Cuban affairs experts in the United States, who agree on the need to move towards dismantling the blockade to a greater or lesser degree, the new government seems little inclined to improve bilateral relations beyond allowing Cuban-Americans greater freedom to travel to Cuba.
“In addition, some of the original willingness to engage in dialogue without preconditions that Obama expressed before the elections has been reversed, and the position now being taken is one of conditional talks, although the language might sound different,” said Fernandez, recalling that this position has been rejected by the Cuban government.
Cuban President Raul Castro has repeatedly said he is willing to enter into dialogue with the new administration that took office Tuesday, but has insisted that it must be “in absolutely equal conditions,” without “unilateral gestures,” or if appropriate, “gesture for gesture.”
“If we take what Obama and his Secretary of State designate, Hillary Clinton, have proposed more recently as evidence of intended policy, there are no grounds to hope for major changes,” said the expert.
However, “it remains to be seen whether, in the new context, pressure and actions in Congress can succeed in eliminating further and greater restrictions,” he added.
“That could really mean the beginning of an end to the blockade,” he said, remarking that what Washington “euphemistically calls an embargo” has been condemned on 17 occasions by the United Nations General Assembly, and has caused social and economic damages to Cuba estimated at 93 billion dollars since it was instituted in 1962.
During his election campaign Obama promised changes in U.S. policy towards this Caribbean island nation, such as lifting some of the restrictions that affect the ties between Cuban emigrés and their families in Cuba. He even raised the possibility of developing “direct diplomacy” with Havana.
At her Senate confirmation hearing as the new secretary of state on Jan. 13, Clinton said that the new president “is committed to lifting the family travel restrictions and the remittance restrictions. He believes that Cuban-Americans are the best ambassadors for democracy, freedom and a free-market economy.
“We hope that the regime in Cuba, both (former president) Fidel and Raul Castro, will see this new administration as an opportunity to change some of their typical approaches: let those political prisoners out; be willing to, you know, open the economy and lift some of the oppressive strictures on the people of Cuba,” Clinton added.
In replies to written questions, Clinton also revealed that a possible review of policy towards Havana might include bilateral cooperation on energy and environmental issues, increased agricultural sales to the island, and considering the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Her statements encouraged sectors in the United States that would like to see a move towards gradual normalization of Cuba-U.S. relations, and who believe that a return to closer ties between Washington and Latin America requires a change of policy towards Havana, which enjoys the support of most of the region.
In Fernandez’s view, it would be a positive step if the new resident in the White House remains willing to cooperate in the areas of energy and the environment, or to eliminate restrictions on sales to Cuba and remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
He said, however, that the new secretary of state showed “political short-sightedness in describing the change of administration as an ‘opportunity’ for Cuba, when in fact, as everyone knows, the source of the problems is the United States itself.”
Fernandez mentioned the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, “which have brought countless victims and deaths” to the people of those countries, as well as “secret prisons, illegal transfer of prisoners, and the indiscriminate use of torture in detention centers like Guantánamo,” a U.S. naval base at the eastern tip of Cuba.
“In other words, the flagrant violator of human rights, the government with a crisis of confidence, loss of credibility and a tarnished image in the world is that of the United States, exacerbated by the ideology-driven and unilateral policies of the administration of George W. Bush,” the expert said.
Given this situation, Fernandez said that if the Obama administration wants to improve its image, it has the “opportunity” to “take concrete steps” that go further than lifting the restrictions on travel and remittances, “which in effect does nothing more than restore part of their rights to U.S. residents” of Cuban origin.
“Although the intention of closing the Guantánamo detention center would occur on Cuban soil and is a welcome measure for what it represents, it is undoubtedly designed more for solving the U.S.’s own problems than to improve relations with Cuba, which would require implementing additional decisions,” he said.
Since 2004, Cubans living in the United States have only been able to travel to their country of origin once every three years, stay no more than 14 days and spend up to 50 dollars a day during their visits. In addition, remittances are limited to 100 dollars a month and can only be sent to direct family members who do not belong to the Cuban Communist Party.
Fernandez regarded the idea that steps might be taken in the short term to unilaterally dismantle the blockade against Cuba as “overly optimistic in the present circumstances,” but said that such action would also bring political and economic benefits to the United States, “which is enduring the worst crisis it has experienced in several decades.”
Improved relations with Cuba would have “very positive repercussions for Washington in the Third World, including Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, as well as among broad popular and progressive social sectors in developed countries and in the United States itself,” he said.
Better relations would also open up opportunities to work together on “important issues of common interest, such as drug trafficking, terrorism, renewable energy and the environment. Trade and investment flows could be increased, jobs could be created, and numbers of travelers could rise, and that’s before we even go into more complex issues,” he said.
“At the same time, the elimination of sanctions and a climate of reduced hostility towards Cuba would create the conditions for relaxing internal security and national defense provisions on the island,” which would “obviously favor the perfecting of the country’s sociopolitical system, which could continue its progress in far better conditions,” the analyst concluded.