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12. 10.09

By David MacMichael ©2009
Among the changes many observers of United States foreign policy
expected the Obama administration to make was moving quickly toward
normalization of relations with Cuba. Conditions seemed almost to demand the
end of almost fifty years of American attempts to overthrow the
revolutionary government of Fidel Castro.A government marked by everything
from sponsorship of armed counter-revolutionary invasion at the Bay of Pigs to
numerous attempts to assassinate Castro to more mundane measures such as
putting a strict economic embargo on the island nation and attempting to
isolate Cuba diplomatically both in the hemisphere and internationally.
Most of these same observers agree that despite producing severe damage
to the overall Cuban economy and a lowered standard of living for the Cuban
population, Washington's hoped for goal of bringing down the communist
government in Havana had not been and was very unlikely to be achieved.
Moreover, in a post-Cold War world the US policy was increasingly condemned
as even most of the traditionally subservient Latin American nations turned
against the US and sided with Cuba.
The Obama administration took office, against a background of dramatic
political change throughout Latin America, with moderate to leftist leaders
elected in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile and other major hemispheric
countries, and even the Sandinistas taking back the government in Nicaragua
and the former revolutionary FMLN becoming the ruling party in El Salvador.
Under these circumstances, informed opinion looked for the new US government
to move toward a more regular relationship with Havana. The fact that Obama
had carried Florida, home to the hardline, Castro-hating Cuban émigré
community, was testimony to the fact that the Cuban-American second and
third generations born in the United States were no longer fiercely
committed to the overthrow of the Castro regime and more concerned for the
well being of their kin on the island. Moreover, important US commercial
interests, particularly agricultural exporters and tourism companies, had
long been urging Washington to give them access to Cuban markets.
It soon became clear, however, that the Obama administration, having
inherited the Bush wars in the Middle East and trying to deal with the
collapsing US economy and the high priority health care reform battle - not to
mention the Iran nuclear issue - had little time for attention to Latin
America generally nor Cuba in particular. Only recently have there been
signs of activity regarding Cuba and these, as Council on Foreign Relations
analyst Julia Sweig told a university audience on September 23, have moved
at the speed of "walking through peanut butter."
In April, at the OAS meeting in Trinidad-Tobago, President Obama had
raised the possibility that ending the trade embargo and granting Cuba OAS
membership would be considered. In July his administration relaxed Bush era
regulations on the travel of Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to
their relatives in Cuba. It has also been noted that the US rules on travel
to Cuba by academics and scientific and cultural groups are being less
stringently enforced. The reality of this change was brought into question
in September when a scheduled concert in Havana by the New York City
Philharmonic Society had to be cancelled when the US refused to allow the US
citizens who were financing the affair to travel to Cuba. Ironically, when
the Philharmonic had performed in North Korea a few months earlier the
sponsors had been allowed to go there.
The most (literally) visible accomplishment so far came about when a
midlevel State Department official, Bisa Williams, on a six day visit to
Cuba in September to discuss establishment of regular US-Cuban postal
service, agreed to stop the display of anti-Castro electronic messages on
the walls of the US interest section in Havana. In return the Cuban government
removed the black flags which blocked their view. At almost the same time,
however. the State Department placed Cuba, along with Syria, Sudan and Iran,
on its new list of nations who carry out or support international terrorism.
There have been few signs, other than the Williams visit, since the
Trinidad-Tobago meeting, that the Obama administration is prepared to take
the domestic political risk - however serious that really is - of ending the
trade embargo or restoring diplomatic relations with Havana. Appeals by the
Cuban Foreign Minister at the UN General Assembly in September were met by
repetitions of the statement issued by Obama special assistant for Latin
America Daniel Resterpe in April that the US reviews its policies toward
Cuba with the goal of "advancing the cause of freedom there."
Admittedly, ending the trade embargo is politically complicated since,
while the president can on his own authority remove Cuba from the
restrictions imposed in 1961 under the Trading with the Enemy Act - the 1996
Helms-Burton Act, which added to these restrictions, requires congressional
approval to remove them.It is doubtful if Obama, even if he wished to
do this, is prepared to take on the political fight that would ensue. Right
now the question is moot since on September 14th he extended the embargo for
another year.
Nevertheless, many serious American analysts of the Cuban-US situation, are
openly expressing concern, even disgust, over Washington's failure to
respond to Cuban overtures and even its hypocrisy, especially in placing
Cuba on the terror list.
Among these are retired Ambassador Wayne Smith, former head of the US
interest office in Havana, who recently stated to this writer his grave
disappointment with Washington's in his opinion unjustifiable maintenance of
the embargo and terror accusations. The influential Washington-based Council
on Hemispheric Affairs takes a similar stance and joins with numerous US and
international human rights groups in denouncing the extraordinary - up to
life - prison sentences given to members of the so-called Cuban 5. A group of
Cuban intelligence officers who infiltrated anti-Castro militant groups in Florida
and exposed to US law enforcement agencies these groups violations of
numerous US laws, including the Neutrality Act. For their pains, the Cuban
officers were arrested in Florida, charged with illegal entry and a variety of
espionage crimes and tried before a hostile jury of Cuban-American exiles.
Many find this situation particularly hypocritical in view of the fact that the
notorious CIA asset Luis Posada Carriles - the admitted mastermind of
the 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner which killed 73 people and
bombing attacks on Havana hotels in 1997 - remains on bail in Miami with
the US refusing to extradite him either to Cuba or Venezuela from which
latter country he fled after being convicted in the airline bombing.
Even the conservative retired US Army General Barry McCaffrey, President
Clinton's former drug czar, recently published an op-ed calling for complete
normalization of relations with Cuba. California Democratic Congressman Sam
Farr has 181 votes lined up for his bill that would end restrictions on US
citizen travel to Cuba.
On balance, despite these indications that normalization or real easing
of US relations with Cuba has growing support, it is unlikely that Obama
will seek "real change." His chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, says
flatly that ending the trade embargo is "way down the road…." This
probably expresses the situation accurately.

David MacMichael, PhD, is a historian and a former analyst for U.S. government agencies and lives near Washington, D.C. He is currently a steering committee member of "Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity" (VIPS).

He unregularly contributes to We're happy to forward
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David MacMichael/ 2009
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