Sun, Aug 27, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Washington renews proposal to end Cuban embargo

LONG HAUL The original offer made in 2004 included the condition of establishing an open economy, but the new offer only requires the beginnings of democratic reform

AFP , WASHINGTON

Washington switched gears toward Cuba this week when it responded to interim leader Raul Castro's wishes for normal relations with an offer to lift economic sanctions in return for initial steps toward democratization.

Nearly a month after longtime strongman and US nemesis Fidel Castro handed the reins of power to his younger brother Raul while he recovers from surgery, Washington renewed President George W. Bush's 2002 proposal to end its 44-year-old embargo on the country.

The offer was rejected by both Fidel Castro and Miami's anti-Castro Cuban-American community at the time.

But it was floated again this week by a senior US official after Raul told the official Cuban communist daily, Granma, that he desired normal relations, while adding that "At this stage, they should understand that force and threats will get them nowhere with Cuba."

On Wednesday, Thomas Shannon, the top US diplomat for the Americas, picked up the gauntlet by prodding the interim Cuban chief to democratize the regime, saying that could get the embargo lifted.

"The offer is still on the table," Shannon said, referring to the 2002 bid.

The US has been pushing Cuba for a more democratic regime since shortly after the official announcement on July 31 that Fidel Castro, who has ruled Cuba for nearly five decades, would delegate his powers to his brother for some months.

"Shannon has made a response to Raul Castro's interview published last week," said Marifeli Perez-Stable, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank.

Perez-Stable said it was worth noting that Shannon had not conditioned lifting the embargo on establishment of an open-market economy, as Bush did four years ago, but on the release of political prisoners, respect for human rights and the beginnings of a transition to democracy.

"That means that Washington is accepting the idea that the communist system can change from within, and indicating an incremental and gradual change instead of demanding democracy immediately," she said.

She pointed out that Shannon described Cuba as a "slow-motion transition."

Shannon changed the tone of US policy, becoming the first senior diplomat to ask for "patience" so long as so little was known about Havana's inner workings, she said.

So far, only the official Juventud Rebelde newspaper has responded to the US offer, calling it a "two-bit comedy show."

The US embargo was set in 1962, and reinforced by the Helms-Burton law in 1996 which ties its lifting to Cuban democratization.

The embargo was further bolstered by Bush in 2004, who reduced the number of family visits Cuban Americans may make to the island as well as the amounts of US dollar remittances they may send.

Ian Vasquez of the Cato Institute said the moment in which Shannon renewed the proposal made it clear that he aimed his message at "those Cubans who want change and who are perhaps negotiating possible changes within the regime."

"For now, the future leadership structure still has not been defined," Shannon said.

In the often paradoxical nature of politics, ending the embargo could benefit the Bush administration, because the Helms-Burton law prohibits US officials from talking with either one of the Castro brothers.

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