Cuba and US try talking, but face numerous obstacles


Sat, Jun 22, 2013 - Page 7

They have hardly become allies, but Cuba and the US have taken some baby steps toward rapprochement that have people wondering if a breakthrough in relations could be imminent.

Skeptics caution that the Cold War enemies have been here many times before, only to fall back into old recriminations. However, there are signs that views might be shifting on both sides.

In the past week, the two countries have held talks on resuming direct mail service, and announced a July 17 sit-down on migration issues. In May, a US federal judge allowed a convicted Cuban intelligence agent to return to the island. This month, Cuba informed the family of jailed US government subcontractor Alan Gross that it would let a US doctor examine him.

Under the radar, diplomats on both sides describe a sea change in the tone of their dealings.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for North American affairs, recently traveled to Washington and met twice with State Department officials — a visit that came right before the announcements of resumptions in the two sets of bilateral talks that had been suspended for more than two years.

“These recent steps indicate a desire on both sides to try to move forward, but also a recognition on both sides of just how difficult it is to make real progress,” said Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University. “These are tiny, incremental gains, and the prospects of going backwards are equally high.”

Among the things that have changed, John Kerry has taken over as US secretary of state and US President Barack Obama no longer has re-election concerns while dealing with the Cuban-American electorate in Florida.

Cuban President Raul Castro, meanwhile, is striving to overhaul Cuba’s economy with a dose of limited free-market capitalism and may feel a need for more open relations with the US.

Several prominent Cuban dissidents have been allowed to travel recently due to Castro’s changes and the trips may have lessened Havana’s worries about the threat posed by dissidents. Likewise, a US federal judge’s decision to allow Cuban spy Rene Gonzalez to return home was met with only muted criticism inside the US.

To be sure, there is still far more that separates the long-time antagonists than unites them.

The State Department has kept Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism and another that calls into question its commitment to fighting human trafficking.

For its part, Cuba continues to denounce Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo.

And then there is Gross who is serving a 15-year jail sentence for bringing communications equipment to the island illegally. His case has scuttled past engagement efforts, and could do so again, US officials say privately.

Many experts think Obama would face less political fallout if he chose engagement because younger Cuban-Americans seem more open to improved ties.

“In general, there is an open attitude, certainly toward re-establishing diplomatic relations,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “Short of perhaps lifting the embargo ... there seems to be increasing support for some sort of understanding with the Cuban government.”