HAVANA TIMES, Dec 29 (IPS) – Relations between Cuba and the United States are still bogged down in longstanding political and ideological differences, in spite of the signals of greater openness and opportunities for dialogue when Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama arrived at the White House.
During his election campaign, Obama expressed willingness to engage in direct diplomacy with Havana. Once in the Oval Office, he eliminated restrictions on cash remittances and travel by Cuban-Americans to the island, imposed by his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, and he re-opened migration talks that had been suspended in 2003.
His administration also held official talks on restoring direct postal services, and eased the climate of hostility, which was reciprocated in Cuba with a toning down of its rhetoric and statements of willingness to engage in “respectful dialogue” to resolve the conflict that has divided the two countries for nearly half a century.
However, initial perceptions that Obama could be the president to bring about a shift in Cuba policy appear to have changed, only a few weeks before the first anniversary of his inauguration in January.
“The situation has changed a lot. Obama is getting closer every day to the Bush era in terms of policy towards Cuba, and he has again brought up the issue of pre-conditions for talks,” Esteban Morales, a researcher at the Centre for Hemispheric and U.S. Studies (CESEU) at the University of Havana, told IPS.
Morales said the September visit to Cuba by the deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Bisa Williams, to negotiate the resumption of postal services between the two countries and other matters of interest to the United States, was a positive step.
“All this creates the appearance of a more relaxed attitude, but in fact Obama has not given any concrete signals that he wants to talk to Cuba about relations. Talks have been held on bilateral issues that are of interest to the United States, but not on basic issues like the creation of a climate of trust that would allow far-reaching conversations in a relaxed atmosphere,” he said.
During her stay in Havana, Williams met separately with dissidents and academics. The U.S. Interests Section (USINT) in Cuba gave a reception to which, for the first time in years, dissidents were not invited. Instead, large numbers of people from the arts world attended.
In Morales’ view, this is a more intelligent policy than Bush’s, but equally subversive. “They avoid overly aggressive speech and attitudes, they hold talks separately with different groups, so as to talk to both sectors without mixing them, because if the dissidents go to a reception, we do not. It’s typical of the Democrats,” he said.
The Dec. 5 arrest of a U.S. citizen for distributing laptops, cell phones and other hi-tech equipment to dissidents, and the presence of USINT officials, as well as other diplomats, at dissident demonstrations on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, further chilled the climate.
Cuban President Raúl Castro said these events show that “the fostering of open and covert subversion against Cuba is on the rise,” and claimed Washington devotes nearly 55 million dollars from the U.S. federal budget towards such activities.
While the United States ostensibly wants “a change in the bilateral conflict, the tools of Washington’s aggressive policy against Cuba remain intact and the U.S. government insists on trying to topple the revolution” and bring about a change in Cuba’s economic and social system, Castro told parliament.
In his speech, broadcast nationwide on Dec. 20, President Castro reaffirmed his government’s desire to reach a “definitive solution to the conflict with the United States, based on respectful dialogue, between equals, on any issue,” without undermining Cuba’s independence and sovereignty.
“If the U.S. government really wants to advance relations with Cuba, I recommend that it give up trying to impose internal governance conditions on us, which only Cubans can decide,” Castro said.
According to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, the Castro administration put forward to the U.S. government in July the issues that in its view need to be discussed in future talks aimed at improving relations, including in the first place the “lifting of the economic, commercial and financial blockade.”
Removing Cuba from the list of terrorist countries is another demand, as well as the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which offer expedited residence permits to Cuban nationals that do not apply to people from other countries, and that Havana complains encourage illegal emigration.
The negotiating list also includes the return to Cuba of the area presently occupied by the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base, an end to illegal radio and television broadcasting to Cuba (by the Miami-based TV and Radio Marti), an end to financing internal subversion, and – an essential element – the freeing of five Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. on spying charges.
Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino and René González are regarded as “anti-terrorism” heroes in Cuba, and the island’s government insists that President Obama “has the constitutional prerogatives to set them free, as an act of justice and of commitment by his government against terrorism.”
Havana is also interested in talks with Washington to establish cooperation in fighting drug trafficking, terrorism and human trafficking, protecting the environment, and dealing with natural disasters.
But Morales and other Cuban analysts have no great expectations for Obama’s second year in office, in view of the complex domestic and foreign problems he is facing, including two “dead-end” wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and the economic and financial crisis.
“Given this context, relations with Cuba are a difficult issue. I think the rightwing sector that controls power in the Democratic government is not interested in improving them,” said the expert, who believes his country is facing the most complex and difficult U.S. administration in the last 50 years.
“We knew where Bush (2001-2009) was coming from, and the same held for Bill Clinton (1993-2001), but with Obama we are in the dark. He points to the left and then turns right,” said Morales, adding that the president often goes back on his words, and takes “cynical” positions on matters like peace or climate change.
For his part, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, told journalists in Washington Dec. 10 that his administration is not seeking an abrupt shift in relations with Cuba, but is taking things calmly.