Havana looks for any hints of 'change' from President-elect Obama
By Andrea Mitchell
Chief foreign affairs correspondent
updated 3:24 p.m. ET Dec. 30, 2008
WASHINGTON — As Cuba marks the 50th anniversary of its Communist
revolution this week, it is looking to Washington and wondering how
Barack Obama, the 11th U.S. president to face the Castro regime, will
change the stormy relationship with Havana.
On Jan. 1, 1959, revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro overthrew the
U.S.-backed government of President Fulgencio Batista.
Within years, President John F. Kennedy imposed the economic embargo
that has been the framework for the U.S. relationship with Cuba ever since.
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Cuba has survived for half a century by relying on its friends — first,
the Soviet Union, now Venezuela, and by blaming the U.S. embargo for its
ills. U.S. presidents in both political parties have played into the
Today, Havana is looking north for any hint of an overture from the
incoming Obama administration, and south toward Venezuela, whose
billions in aid during the years of high oil prices — along with easy
credit from Russia, Iran and China — have helped sustain the island's
But how much longer can Cuba rely on its allies for financial support as
oil prices tumble?
Now a new American president's ideas for the relationship will be
tested. What happens next will depend on Obama — and on the agility and
intentions of his counterpart, thirty years his senior, Cuban President
Overtures from a new Castro leader?
While 82-year-old Fidel Castro still writes on any and all subjects for
the Communist Party daily, his 77-year-old brother Raul is clearly in
charge. Until now, Raul has not made any bold moves.
But recently, he signaled interest in a dialogue with the U.S.,
suggesting the possibility of a prisoner exchange — focusing on five
Cubans viewed by Havana as heroes, but imprisoned in the U.S. as spies.
For its part, Washington is keenly interested in any sign that Cuba will
release scores of political prisoners, writers and other dissidents
jailed by Fidel Castro during a crackdown nearly six years ago.
As with all diplomacy, progress toward an easing of tensions will
require timing, reciprocity — and mutual deniability. The Cubans are
insisting on negotiations with no preconditions. The U.S. side has long
demanded action on human rights before any easing of trade or travel
The stalemate has suffered, or benefited, depending on your point of
view, from not-so benign neglect: While the embargo is central to all
policy discussions in Cuba, since 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, Cuba has become, at most, a minor irritant to Bush
Cuba looking for 'change,' too
Over the past decade, I've visited Cuba frequently as a journalist — one
of the few professions still permitted under the Bush administration's
tightened restrictions to travel freely to the island.
Even during periods of extreme strain in the relationship, such as the
protests over the case of Elian Gonzalez in 1999, I've found that
average Cubans are keenly interested in learning everything they can
about the United States. Most want to clear away the tangled underbrush
of misunderstandings that have grown between the two nations over the
course of a half-century. That curiosity about the United States has
only increased as more and more Cubans gain access to the Internet
through bootlegged technology.
But to many on both sides, it seems as though every step forward —
increased tourism years ago, grain deals between Midwestern farmers and
Cuban agriculture officials, various cultural exchanges — was met with
some deliberate or unintended obstacle put forward by one or both of the
This despite the fact that observers on the island and in the U.S.
believe that much could be shared between the neighbors if some level of
dialogue were restored. Such progress could include, but not be limited
to, potentially productive agreements on migration, drug interdiction,
health care, and hurricane relief.
After a series of devastating hurricanes and the fallout from the
deepening global recession, Cuba would obviously benefit greatly from
trade with its closest neighbor.
Cuban officials insist they want to engage, and are only awaiting a
signal from the new American president if he attends, as is expected, a
scheduled Latin American summit in Trinidad in April.
Will an Obama administration change course?
Will Obama revisit Cuban policy so early in his new administration?
Arguably, he faces many more critical challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Iran, and now Gaza.
But for the United States, the embargo has become a double-edged sword.
At the United Nations in October, the General Assembly voted once again
for a resolution urging the United States to repeal its trade embargo
against Cuba, as it has for 17 years in a row.
The tally in favor of Havana was overwhelming, 185 countries to 3. Only
Israel and Palau joined the U.S. in supporting the 47-year-old embargo.
Obama's transition team is being told that easing the Cuba policy would
be a quick way to win friends in this hemisphere.
And the political calculus in the U.S. is no longer predictable. In
Florida, for instance, younger Cuban-Americans are less resistant than
their parents and grandparents to the idea of restored relations. Even a
slight easing of Bush administration restrictions on travel and
remittances to Cuba would be popular among many Cuban-Americans.
Nothing will be done in Havana or Washington without intense focus on
the political ramifications. Obama's party now sees a political opening
in Florida in 2010, with the announced retirement of Senator Mel
Martinez. In vying for the open seat, Democrats could even be facing a
popular former governor named Bush — Jeb Bush — who is strongly
anti-Castro, and potentially the GOP's best candidate.
Watching how their governments handle the delicate dance over future
relations will be Cuban-Americans, who have had an exaggerated influence
over U.S. policy in the past, as well as the Cubans, who have been
waiting and waiting — for 50 years.