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Obama and the Future of US-Cuba Relations

Even as Barack Obama has signalled a different approach to United States relations with Cuba, there are elements of continuity with the past. Obama needs to respond to many demands at the same time, including that of the domestic anti-Cuba lobby. But the balance of forces - both within the US and among Latin American countries - is still shifting, and this will play a crucial role in determining the future of US policy towards Cuba and Latin America.

COMMENTARY

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Obama and the Future of US-Cuba Relations

Sujatha Fernandes

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an end to the embargo in the wake of the George Bush administration. But on this i ssue, there are various signs of continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations. There is at least a faction of the Obama administration that wants to continue the Bush policies. Officials like James

Even as Barack Obama has signalled a different approach to United States relations with Cuba, there are elements of continuity with the past. Obama needs to respond to many demands at the same time, including that of the domestic anti-Cuba lobby. But the balance of forces – both within the US and among Latin American countries – is still shifting, and this will play a crucial role in determining the future of US policy towards Cuba and Latin America.

Sujatha Fernandes (sujathaf@yahoo.com) is with the Sociology Department at Queens College, City University of New York, United States.

D
uring a recent trip to Chile, United States (US) Vice President Joe B iden, affirmed that there was no plan under the Barack Obama administration to lift the 47-year-old embargo against Cuba. Yet despite this tough stance, there have been other signs that US/Cuba relations are improving. How can we understand the prospects for US/Cuba relations in the current period, with the election of a Democratic president to the White House and a changeover of leadership in Cuba? What domestic constraints and opportunities does Barack Obama encounter as he seeks to open new channels of dialogue with Cuba?

Continuity

Early on in the primary debates with H illary Clinton, Obama had said he would be willing to open dialogue with Cuban leader Raul Castro if he was elected. While raising ire from some sectors, this also gave hope to others, who have been waiting for

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 9, 2009 vol xliv no 19

Steinberg, who is second to Hillary Clinton in the State Department, have made s tatements reinforcing a policy of nonengagement with Cuba. Obama has not yet replaced Bush’s top State Department

o fficial for the Western Hemisphere, T homas Shannon. There is the ongoing i nfluence of Cuban-American senators like Bob Menendez, Democratic of New Jersey, who oppose all efforts to end the travel ban and embargo. Obama is aware that he must a ppease these politicians and court the hardcore sectors of the Miami-Cuban community if he is to appeal to this electorate, as many Democrats before him have done.

Indeed, it was under a Democratic president – Bill Clinton – that some of the most punitive bills strengthening the embargo were passed. Obama has shown signs of continuing this policy. During the primaries, Obama gave a public address to the conservative exile Cuban American N ational Foundation in Miami, promising to maintain the embargo on Cuba.

COMMENTARY

But there is still some hope for a change in US foreign policy towards Cuba. Obama’s election comes at a time when various groups are pushing for an end to the e mbargo – including farmers and agricultural groups, the Catholic Church, the tourism industry, and many Cuban-Americans, particularly those who have migrated in recent years and do not hold the intransigent views of their predecessors. Obama himself has indicated a greater willingness to n egotiate. Under Obama, there has already been a relaxation of the highly u npopular restrictions placed on Cuban-Americans, who under the Bush administration were only permitted to travel to Cuba for two weeks every three years. They are now a llowed unlimited visits and to stay for as long as they like. Restrictions on gifts and cash payments have been eased and US t elecom companies have been allowed to expand service to the i sland.

In early April, a delegation of seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with the Castro brothers. The meeting was the first diplomatic initiative to take place under the Obama administration and one of the few meetings with foreign officials that the ailing leader Fidel Castro has participated in since taking ill a few years ago. During the meeting R epresentative Barbara Lee pushed for student, medical and biotech exchanges between the two countries. The trip was criticised by much of the conservative and mainstream media within the United States; the Washington Post criticised the Black Caucus for only meeting with Cuban officials and not Afro-Cuban dissidents, for instance. But perhaps the Caucus r ecognise the limited role of dissidents, and are aware that by engaging an evolving Cuban leadership there is more potential for real change in Cuba.

The approach of openings and dialogue differs somewhat from that of the Bush administration, which focused solely on so-called “regime change”. Money was channelled into various dissident organisations, while making life more difficult for those on the island by limiting tourism revenue and remittances, a policy which only served to further embitter the Cuban people against the United States.

There are bills that have been introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate with bipartisan support, which would allow unrestricted travel by all American citizens to Cuba. The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, HR 874, has over 120 bipartisan supporters, including agricultural groups, the Catholic Church, and Cuban-Americans. It is important to note that the passage of HR 874 would not rescind the trade embargo, although some supporters of this Act are in favour of an end to the embargo. But the possibility of ending the travel ban without addressing the larger injustice of the embargo has provoked concerns among some that transfers of money and resources through private hands and the growth of the tourism sector will promote greater inequalities between those who work in tourism or have relatives abroad, and those who do not.

The election of Obama was heralded with some optimism in Cuba because of the prospects for a change from Bush-era policies. And for some Afro-Cubans, the election of an African-American president also held symbolic value due to the close historic ties between African-Americans and Afro-Cubans. But in other parts of Latin America, people have been somewhat more cautious, given the hostile r emarks that have been made by Obama towards leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who Obama accused of “i mpeding progress” and “exporting t errorism”.

Summit Deliberations

At the Fifth Summit of the Americas, held in Trinidad and Tobago on 17-19 April, Obama came face to face with many Latin American leaders for the first time. As v arious Latin American leaders exhorted Obama to consider ending the embargo, he responded that it would depend on C uba’s efforts at liberalisation. There was also an attempt made at resuming US- Venezuela relations, as Obama personally approached Chávez at the summit. Chávez later presented Obama with a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America by E duardo Galeano, an account of the p illage and destruction of the continent by imperial powers. Indicating his willingness to dialogue, Chávez announced that Venezuela will appoint a new US ambassador, after having earlier called back the previous ambassador. Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and others declined to sign the

may 9, 2009

final statement of the summit, stating that it excluded Cuba and did not come up with a viable future plan to resolve the continent’s economic crisis. Cuba was not permitted to attend, despite vigorous lobbying by Chávez, although Raul Castro indicated that Cuban leaders would be willing to engage in open talks with the US, including over human rights, freedom of the press, and political prisoners. Obama welcomed this overture, saying that as long as there were problems of human rights and freedom of speech in Cuba he could not contemplate ending the embargo. But an open discussion of these issues would require the US to a ddress the issue of its own political prisoners, including the former Black P anther Assata Shakur who lives in political asylum in Cuba with a onemillion dollar bounty placed on her head by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It would be h ypocritical for Obama to support those New Jersey politicians calling for Assata’s extradition, while simultaneously criti cising the Cuban leadership for i mprisoning dissidents.

Can the summit herald a new era of d iplomacy emerging after years of estrangement and hostility? Perhaps it is too early to say. Obama has made some indications of continuity with Bush-era policies. And while Obama was making overtures to leaders like Chávez, his appointed adviser for the summit, Jeffrey Davidow, continued with his anti-Chávez rhetoric. Obama met with Colombian president Álvaro Uribe at the Summit to discuss a r enegotiation of the free trade agreement, a surprising move given his expressed o pposition to the agreement with Colombia during his presidential campaign. He also met with Mexican president Felipe Calderon prior to the summit, promising more funds for the war on drugs. Obama is strengthening ties with old allies in the region, as he is trying to bridge the divide with former adversaries. This is a strategy that may eventually backfire, particularly as Latin American leaders consolidate their own inter-regional ties. But the balance of forces – both domestically within the US and among Latin American countries – is still shifting, and this will play a crucial role in determining the future of US policy towards Cuba and Latin America.

vol xliv no 19

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Economic & Political Weekly

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