Obama Will Use Spring Summit to Bring Cuba in from the Cold
US companies are queuing up as the president moves to ease restrictions on travel and trade, raising hopes of warmer relations and an end to the embargo
President Barack Obama is poised to offer an olive branch to Cuba in an effort to repair the US's tattered reputation in Latin America.
White House has moved to ease some travel and trade restrictions as a
cautious first step towards better ties with Havana, raising hopes of
an eventual lifting of the four-decade-old economic embargo. Several
Bush-era controls are expected to be relaxed in the run-up to next
month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to gild the
president's regional debut and signal a new era of "Yankee" cooperation.
administration has moved to ease draconian travel controls and lift
limits on cash remittances that Cuban-Americans can send to the island,
a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families.
"The effect on
ordinary Cubans will be fairly significant. It will improve things and
be very welcome," said a western diplomat in Havana. The changes would
reverse hardline Bush policies but not fundamentally alter relations
between the superpower and the island, he added. "It just takes us back
to the 1990s."
The provisions are contained in a $410bn (£290bn)
spending bill due to be voted on this week. The legislation would allow
Americans with immediate family in Cuba to visit annually, instead of
once every three years, and broaden the definition of immediate family.
It would also drop a requirement that Havana pay cash in advance for US
"There is a strong likelihood that Obama will
announce policy changes prior to the summit," said Daniel Erikson,
director of Caribbean programmes at the Inter-American Dialogue and
author of The Cuba Wars. "Loosening travel restrictions would be the
easy thing to do and defuse tensions at the summit."
America, once considered Washington's "backyard", has become newly
assertive and ended the Castro government's pariah status. The
presidents of Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Guatemala
have recently visited Havana to deepen economic and political ties.
Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is expected to tell
Obama on a White House visit this week that the region views the US
embargo as anachronistic and vindictive. Easing it would help mend
Washington's strained relations with the "pink tide" of leftist
Obama's proposed Cuba measures would only partly
thaw a policy frozen since John F Kennedy tried to isolate the
communist state across the Florida Straits. "It would signal new
pragmatism, but you would still have the embargo, which is the
centrepiece of US policy," said Erikson.
Wayne Smith at the Centre for International Policy, Washington DC, said: "I think that the Obama administration
will go ahead and lift restrictions on travel of Cuban Americans and
remittance to their families. He may also lift restrictions on academic
"There are some things that could be done very easily -
for example it's about time we took Cuba off the terrorist list. It's
the beginning of the end of the policies we have had towards Cuba for
50 years. It's achieved nothing, it's an embarrassment."
Smith, a former head of the US Interest Section in Havana, famously
said Cuba had the same effect on American administrations as the full
moon had on werewolves.
Cuban exiles in Florida, a crucial voting
bloc in a swing state, sustained a hardline US policy towards Havana
even as the cold war ended and the US traded with other undemocratic
nations with much worse human rights records.
chagrin, the economic stranglehold did not topple Fidel Castro. When
Soviet Union subsidies evaporated, the "maximum leader" implemented
savage austerity, opened the island to tourism and found a new sponsor
in Venezuela's petrol-rich president, Hugo Chávez.
fell ill in 2006, power transferred seamlessly to his brother Raúl. He
cemented his authority last week with a cabinet reshuffle that replaced
"Fidelistas" with "Raúlistas" from the military.
Castro continuity, and aghast at European and Asian competitors getting
a free hand, US corporate interests are impatient to do business with
Cuba. Oil companies want to drill offshore, farmers to export more
rice, vegetables and meat, construction firms to build infrastructure
Young Cuban exiles in Florida, less radical than
their parents, have advocated ending the policy of isolation. As a
senator, Obama opposed the embargo, but as a presidential candidate he
supported it - and simultaneously promised engagement with Havana.
handful of hardline anti-Castro Republican and Democrat members of
Congress have threatened to derail the $410bn spending bill unless the
Cuba provisions are removed, but most analysts think the legislation
Compared to intractable challenges in Afghanistan,
Pakistan and the Middle East, the opportunity for quick progress on
Cuba has been called the "low-hanging fruit" of US foreign policy.
Obama has moved so cautiously has frustrated many reformers. But after
decades of freeze, even a slight thaw is welcome, and there is
speculation that more will follow.
Kennedy imposed an economic and trade embargo on Cuba on 7 February
1962 after Fidel Castro's government expropriated US property on the
island. Known by Cubans as el bloqueo, the blockade, elements have been
toughened and relaxed under succeeding US presidents. Exceptions have
been made for food and medicine exports. George Bush added restrictions
on travel and remittances.
The sanctions regime
- No Cuban products or raw materials may enter the US
- US companies and foreign subsidiaries banned from trade with Cuba
- Cuba must pay cash up front when importing US food
- Ships which dock in Cuba may not dock in the US for six months
- US citizens banned from spending money or receiving gifts in Cuba without special permission, in effect a travel ban
- Americans with family on the island limited to one visit every three years.