Obama suggested change was coming at a Miami fundraiser in
November, saying "we have to be creative, and we have to be
thoughtful, and we have to continue to update our policies" on Cuba,
and yet he has withheld using his executive power since last easing
Cuban travel restrictions in January 2011.
Many Cuba experts and policy analysts say a fundamental revision of
Cuba policy is overdue and that greater U.S. involvement could
promote the market-oriented reforms under way on the communist-ruled
island since Cuban President Raul Castro took over for his ailing
brother Fidel in 2008.
The Obama administration says Cuba must first improve human rights
and release imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced
to 15 years for attempting to establish an illegal communications
network on the island.
"Cuba would make it a whole lot easier if they would just release
Alan Gross," said one U.S. official who is knowledgeable about Cuba
policy and asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of
"Whenever you move on Cuba policy there is always fierce opposition
from some members of Congress. There's never a good time to do it.
And it's not clear that the benefits outweigh the negatives," the
Officials from both countries have told Reuters that U.S.-Cuban
relations have taken on a more serious and pragmatic tone in recent
months. They have cooperated on drug interdiction, oil-spill
mitigation and immigration. Cuba experts say bilateral relations
have not been this good since the 1990s, in U.S. President Bill
Clinton's first term.
The most vexing problem is the detention of Gross.
Cuba has shown no interest in releasing him without first seeing a
U.S. gesture, such as releasing the "Cuban Five" agents arrested in
Florida in 1998 and convicted in 2001 for spying.
That puts the burden on Obama to create a solution. U.S. officials
have refused to swap the four Cubans — soon to be three — remaining
in prison for Gross. One option would be for the U.S. State
Department to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of
terrorism, which carries economic sanctions on top of those from the
U.S. economic embargo in place since 1962.
Any concession would provoke howls of protest from the influential
anti-Castro lobby, which demands changes within the one-party state
before it would ease its hard line. Havana clearly wants improved
relations but is unwilling to make concessions just to please
When Obama shook Raul Castro's hand in South Africa at a memorial
service for Nelson Mandela in December, it followed a series of
improvements in ties between two countries separated by just 90
miles of sea but half a century of hostility.
In his State of the Union speech last month, Obama promised to act
alone when Congress refuses. But so far he has given little
indication that Cuba policy is a priority.
Obama cannot lift the economic embargo without Congress, where there
is serious opposition from both parties, but he could further
liberalize travel restrictions and promote more cultural exchanges,
as he first did in 2009.
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Cuba analysts who advocate a greater opening argue that Obama should
not wait for Cuba to act, that he can loosen remittance policy and
support Cuba's growing private sector by allowing U.S. businesses
and investors to deal more directly with Cubans. Although U.S. law
blocks most commerce, Obama could pursue a national-interest or
presidential waiver, experts say.
"The question should be, 'Does it advance U.S. interests?' and the
answer is yes," said Richard Feinberg, a former National Security
Council aide to Clinton who visits Cuba regularly and has briefed
the Obama White House.
THE REST OF THE WEST
The European Union is on the verge of reengaging Cuba in economic
cooperation talks, and Latin American countries continue to deepen
ties with Cuba.
"The present foreign policy of Cuba is becoming more and more
realistic in searching for economic partners in order to go ahead
with the updating of the economic system," said Carlos Alzugaray, a
retired former senior Cuban diplomat, noting the inauguration last
month of a Brazilian-financed upgrade of the port at Mariel, near
Havana, designed to boost trade.
In part because of the U.S. embargo, Cuba's current trade policy is
focused on its socialist allies, notably oil-rich Venezuela, which
provides Havana with cheap oil.
"Raul (Castro) is concerned that the Venezuelan ATM machine is not
going to be there forever," said Paul Hare, a former British
ambassador to Cuba.
Across the Florida Straits, the influence of the anti-Castro forces
in Miami is legendary, but it is also waning with generational
change. Exit polls showed Obama won close to half the Cuban-American
vote in Florida in 2012 and took the state's much larger non-Cuban
Latino vote handily.
Despite the changing politics, Obama appears unwilling to confront
intense Republican opposition or alienate New Jersey Senator Bob
Menendez, a Democrat and Cuban-American who is chairman of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a fervid supporter of the
For the last decade the Cuban exile lobby has poured money into
targeted congressional races and created a solid block of bipartisan
support, including almost 90 Democrats.
"We have made sure to have our presence felt in campaigns around the
country getting like-minded people elected," said Mauricio
Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which
lobbies for a strict embargo.
Claver-Carone said his political action committee has put $5 million
into congressional campaigns since 2003.
"We are now the single largest foreign policy PAC in the country,"
he said, "and by far the largest Hispanic PAC ever in history."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in Havana and David Adams in Miami;
editing by Prudence Crowther)
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