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November 6, 2008
Obama Awakens Hopes for a Thaw in Cuba Relations
by Patricia Grogg

HAVANA - US President-elect Barack Obama has a positive image among most Cubans, who are hopeful regarding his promises of loosening some restrictions towards the island, although the government-controlled media here have refrained from commenting on the future of relations between the two countries.

The Democratic candidate who will become the first African-American president of the United States on Jan. 20 may also become the first to sit down to talks with the Cuban government after nearly half a century of conflict.

During his campaign, Obama pledged to lift travel restrictions so that Cuban-Americans can visit their families in Cuba, and to eliminate caps on the remittances they can send back to their families -- measures that were adopted in 2004 by the Republican administration of President George W. Bush.

Obama also said he was willing to pursue direct diplomacy with the Cuban government, without preconditions.

"I hope that with him as president, relations will be eased, and there won't be so many restrictions," a 62-year-old woman told IPS, after complaining that in November 2007 she was refused a visa for the second time, on the argument that she posed a risk to US interests.

"My parents and siblings have lived over there for years, and I never had any problem visiting them before. But for the Bush administration I'm a danger, and I can't see my mother, who is 92 years old and sick and wants to see me," she added, asking not to be identified "to avoid further complicating matters."

A shift in Washington's policy towards Cuba would have several advantages for Cuban society, in the view of Reverend Raymundo García, director of the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue, one of the few civil society organizations in Cuba that regularly analyses human rights questions.

Obama's offer "to be open to dialogue with Cuba…is a watershed for his country and his government, because it would require a dismantling of what has been called an embargo based on democracy and human rights questions," he said.

The protestant minister said he had no doubts that a new attitude on the part of Washington would immediately contribute to bringing about closer ties between families divided between the two countries and would help the Cuban economy as a result of increased travel and remittances. "God willing, this will be the start of an end to the mutual recriminations, accusations and spitefulness that have caused so much harm," he said.

Academics who spoke to IPS, however, said they do not foresee significant short-term economic benefits, especially because of the financial crisis in the United States, which has already translated into a drop in remittances towards the rest of the Americas, as well as a reduction in travel due to soaring air ticket prices.

"Without a doubt, the situation could improve in the next few months, and that would be a positive signal, but for now, Obama's priority is to improve the US economy and rebuild the nation's prestige," economy Professor Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva told IPS.

He also said, however, that he has no doubts that if the US Congress passes laws favorable to Cuba, Obama will not veto them. "He wouldn't have any reason to do so, and besides, the hard-line Cuban-Americans are Republicans, to whom Obama is not beholden."

Luis René Fernández, assistant director of the University of Havana's Center for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU), agrees that Cuba is not "a priority" on Washington's agenda, but said a new stance towards this Caribbean island nation could "be important for the world's perception of the United States."

"That is, small changes in the policy towards Cuba, a degree of flexibility, an openness to diplomatic negotiations, however limited, could help improve something crucial to US politics: the country's image, which has severely deteriorated after eight years of an administration that has been deeply unpopular at a global level," said Fernández.

In the analyst's view, a more pragmatic Cuba policy could provide "collateral benefits" to the government of Obama, who will take office only a few weeks after the Cuban government headed by Raúl Castro celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, on Jan. 1, 2009.

Up to now, only former president Fidel Castro has publicly referred to the two candidates who faced off in Tuesday's elections. In his most recent column, he described Obama as "more intelligent, educated and level-headed" than his Republican rival, John McCain.

"Obama came to these elections with the backing of the dominant class in the United States," Ramón Sánchez-Parodi Montoto, international relations analyst and former head of the Cuban Interests Section in the United States wrote in an article Wednesday in Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's governing Communist Party.

Opinions varied among dissident groups in Cuba. "I don't believe in proposals for dialogue with this government," Berta Soler, a member of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and daughters of imprisoned dissidents who were accused of "conspiring" with the United States, told IPS.

By contrast, Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo said that for Cuba, the change that lies ahead in Washington could open up a new horizon of "infinite" possibilities and "would also be an opportunity for enriching dialogue with Latin America." Menoyo is the head of Cuban Change, which he describes as "an independent opposition organization."

(Inter Press Service)

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Patricia Grogg writes for Inter Press Service.

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