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Change Converging on Cuba?

Author: Stephanie Hanson
December 31, 2008

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U.S. policy toward Cuba has changed only at the margins during the last ten administrations to occupy the White House, but the Communist Caribbean island continues to command Washington's attention. Now Cuba watchers are contemplating whether President-elect Barack Obama's mantra of "change" might translate to significant revisions in U.S. policy toward Havana, and perhaps an eventual thaw in the long-stagnant U.S.-Cuba relationship.

In a significant break from the strategy of the Bush administration, Obama has signaled a willingness to have direct talks with Cuban President Raul Castro. On the campaign trail, he created a small stir when he broke with the status quo on U.S.-Cuba policy, stating that under certain conditions he would repeal restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba--and, importantly, he was able to do so while retaining moderate popularity (NYT) among the politically significant bloc of Cuban Americans in Florida's Dade County. Obama's apparent openness has been partly reciprocated by Raul Castro, who said he would be open to talks, while adding that Cuba would have goals of its own in any such negotiations. "Perhaps we could meet at Guantánamo," Raul told actor Sean Penn in an interview in October. "We could send [Obama] home with the American flag that waves over Guantánamo Bay."

It's unclear precisely what U.S.-Cuba talks would accomplish, even if they do take place. The centerpiece of U.S. policy toward Cuba, the economic embargo, cannot be repealed without congressional action. Critics of the embargo hold prominent positions in Congress, including the chairs of the Senate Finance Committee,and the House Foreign Affairs Committee (CQ). But many Cuba experts, including Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, say Congress is unlikely to lift the embargo. The six Cuban-Americans in Congress have a fair amount of power, Erikson told Newsweek. Though many Cuban-Americans are now interested in ending the embargo, according to a November 2008 poll by Florida International University, 45 percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida want to maintain the trade ban.

Even if he doesn't move to lift trade restrictions altogether, Obama could still significantly alter Cuba policy by making changes to the terms of the embargo. Jake Colvin of the National Foreign Trade Council says the idea that meaningful policy changes require an act of Congress is "mistaken." In a December 2008 report, he writes: "Change-whether unilateral action, diplomatic initiatives towards Cuba or U.S. allies, or multilateral initiatives--can and should be led by the White House. The idea that Congress has limited the president through legislation such as Helms-Burton is largely a myth." Already, a certain amount of trade takes place between the countries, even despite the embargo. The United States is Cuba's fifth-largest trading partner, primarily due to food exports. In 2000, Congress amended the trade embargo to allow agricultural exports from the United States. In 2006, U.S. companies exported roughly $336 million (PDF) worth of food and agricultural products to Cuba, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission; in 2001 that figure was virtually zero.

Latin America policy experts note a range of lesser steps the Obama administration could take to change the U.S.-Cuba relationship. A November 2008 report from the Brookings Institution recommends that the United States remove Cuba from the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list, provide humanitarian and disaster-relief assistance, and create a multilateral fund to train Cuban entrepreneurs. Cuban columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner suggests that the United States establish an advisory council on Cuba that includes the six Cuban-Americans in Congress to advise the new administration's Cuba transition coordinator. A 2008 Task Force report from the Council on Foreign Relations proposes that the United States hold bilateral talks on issues like migration, drug smuggling, Guantanamo, and deepwater oil exploration. "The time is ripe to show the Cuban people, especially the younger generations, that an alternative exists to permanent hostility between these two nations," it says.

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