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January 15, 2009

Obama Urged to Take Bold Steps Toward Cuba Normalization

by Jim Lobe

A broad spectrum of groups and individuals is urging President-elect Barack Obama to go beyond his campaign pledge to lift curbs on travel and remittances to their homeland by Cuban Americans and launch a much broader process of normalization with Havana.

Several analysts contacted by IPS said they were encouraged by Tuesday's testimony by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, who took a more hawkish position on Cuba during her own presidential campaign last spring, when she was asked about Obama's plans.

"The President-elect is committed to lifting family travel restrictions and the remittance restriction," she said.

"...We hope that the regime in Cuba – both Fidel and (President) Raúl 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 up the economy, and lift some of the oppressive strictures on the people of Cuba, and I think that there would be an opportunity that could be perhaps exploited."

In response to written questions, Clinton also disclosed that the incoming administration planned to conduct a "review" of US policy toward Havana that, among other issues, would include consideration of increasing US agricultural sales to the island, bilateral cooperation on energy and the environment, and whether or not Cuba should be dropped from the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism List where it was first placed in 1982.

"Senator Clinton not only made clear that the Obama administration would honor its commitment to restore Cuban-American family travel and financial support," said Sarah Stephens, whose organization, Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) last week published a 100-page report on how the two countries can normalize their relations in nine key areas, "but she also left the door open to significant additional opportunities to engage down the road."

What with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and nearly 200,000 US troops deployed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cuba is unlikely to rank at the top of the new administration's foreign-policy agenda.

But as a symbol of Obama's oft-stated willingness to engage – rather than isolate – traditional foreign adversaries, Cuba, which has been treated by Washington as an enemy state virtually since the elder Castro entered Havana 50 years and two weeks ago, could serve as a major touchstone, particularly for the rest of Latin America.

"Obama can't change the tone in US-Latin America relations while continuing the same basic policy toward Cuba," said Dan Erickson, a specialist with the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) think tank and author of a new book on the history of US-Cuban relations, The Cuba Wars.

"Ultimately, Cuba by itself is not that important to US Latin America policy, but it has become an obstacle to better relations with other key Latin America countries, like Brazil and Venezuela, that have repeatedly called for the US to open up to Cuba," he said.

Erickson noted that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last month "took the trouble of holding a whole Latin American summit for the purpose of inviting Cuba, since it has been excluded [by the US] from the Organization of American States (OAS)."

In her testimony, Clinton said the new administration would "return to a policy of vigorous engagement throughout Latin America," and stressed Brazil's importance, in particular, as a partner Washington needed to actively engage.

During the presidential campaign, Obama took the most forthcoming position on normalizing ties with Havana of any of the major candidates, although his pledge to repeal unpopular restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush on the freedom of Cuban Americans to travel to their homeland and send money to their family members there was carefully coordinated with the views of the Cuban-American National Federation (CANF), a key lobby group that remains strongly anti-Castro and continues to support the 47-year-old US trade embargo.

Indeed, in an appearance before CANF last spring, Obama promised to maintain the embargo against Havana as "leverage" – a word repeated by Clinton in her written testimony – to promote political and economic change in Cuba.

At the same time, however, he stressed that he would "pursue diplomacy" with Havana "without preconditions," and that, "if (Cuba) take(s) significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations."

In his trip to Brasilia last month, Raúl Castro offered to send some 200 prisoners cited by Washington and their families to the United States in return for five Cubans who were convicted of espionage here and suggested further that his government was prepared to "make a gesture for a gesture." He subsequently said Cuba was "willing to talk with Mr. Obama, wherever and whenever he decides, but under absolute equality of conditions, as equal to equal."

The growing number of advocates for lifting the embargo, from the US Chamber of Commerce (USCC) to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), believe the moment is riper than ever to pursue that goal in earnest.

"Domestically, Obama owes far less to hard-line Cuban-Americans than did President Bush," according to Erickson. "He won Florida without requiring a majority of the Cuban-American vote and, in the end, he didn't even need Florida to win the election. That gives him greater scope of movement."

"The political center of gravity has shifted since the campaign, and there's much more political space to repeal the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans and to engage in new and creative ways with the Cuban government," Stephens told IPS. "I expect Obama to seize these historic opportunities and not shrink from them."

Indeed, since the Nov. 4 election, a number of organizations have called for effectively dismantling the embargo. Two weeks after Obama's victory, a blue-ribbon inter-American commission convened by the Brookings Institution – a number of whose associates are expected to get senior posts in the new administration – called for Cuba's immediate removal from the terrorism list; the lifting of all curbs on travel to the island, an end to restrictions on humanitarian aid, and the re-integration of Havana into regional and global institutions, like the OAS and the World Bank from which Washington has excluded it.

Two weeks later, the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) released a letter to Obama signed by the heads of virtually all of the biggest US business associations, including the USCC and the National Retail Federation, calling for the "complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba."

"We recognize that change may not come all at once, but it must start somewhere, and it must begin soon," it said.

The NFTC also released a report on specific steps Obama could take to ease travel and trade restrictions without seeking legislation from Congress, some of which were also cited in the new CDA report released last week. It identified nine areas – among them, search and rescue, anti-drug trafficking and other law enforcement activities, health, energy exploration, and civil defense in dealing with natural disasters – where significantly enhanced cooperation would benefit both countries.

Last week, Freedom House, a strongly anti-Communist group that receives substantial government funding, called publicly for the first time for ending all restrictions on remittances and travel to and from Cuba.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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