Thursday, December 31, 2009

In Cuba, Hopeful Tenor Toward Obama Is Ebbing

December 31, 2009
In Cuba, Hopeful Tenor Toward Obama Is Ebbing

HAVANA — The Obama honeymoon here is over.

When President Obama came to office, the unflattering billboards of
George W. Bush, including one outside the United States Interests
Section of him scowling alongside Hitler, came down and the
anti-American vitriol softened. Raúl Castro, who took over from his
ailing brother Fidel in 2006, even raised the possibility of a
face-to-face meeting with Mr. Obama, which would have been the first
time one of the Castros met with a sitting American president.

But the tenor here has changed considerably, and Mr. Obama, whose
election was broadly celebrated by Cuba's racially diverse population,
is now being portrayed by this nation's leaders as an imperialistic,
warmongering Cuba hater.

"As things appear now, there will be no big change in the relationship
in the near future," said Ricardo Alarcón, the president of Cuba's
National Assembly. He dismissed the Obama administration's recent steps,
like loosening restrictions on Cuban Americans' traveling or sending
money to the island and allowing American telecommunications companies
to do business there, as "minor changes."

The two countries have postponed the talks they restarted at the
beginning of the Obama administration to discuss migration, postal
delivery and other issues, blaming each other for the delays. In the
absence of talks, Mr. Obama's carrot-and-stick approach of relaxing some
Bush-era policies while continuing to denounce the Castro government on
human rights has failed to engage — and perhaps has enraged — the Cuban

While Raúl Castro repeated the offer to meet with Mr. Obama in a fiery
speech recently, he also blasted the Obama administration for
"undercover subversion" against Cuba and warned that his nation was
ready for any American invasion. In one of his recent written
commentaries in the state press, Fidel Castro, who has not appeared in
public in nearly three years, wrote that Mr. Obama's "friendly smile and
African-American face" masked his sinister intentions to control Latin

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla also recently accused Mr.
Obama of behaving like an "imperial chief" at the climate change talks
in Copenhagen, displaying "arrogant" behavior aimed at quashing
developing countries.

"It's unfortunate," Wayne S. Smith, a former American diplomat in
Havana, said of the rising tensions. "There was and still is potential
for the Obama administration to change relations with Cuba. These
comments coming out of Havana don't help."

Mr. Obama is the 11th president from what the Cubans call "El Imperio,"
or "The Empire," that the Castros have jousted with since the revolution
a half century ago. And given that the Cubans have used Washington as a
foil for so long, some of the high-voltage criticism of Mr. Obama is
chalked up by some Cuba analysts as merely Havana's normal stance when
it comes to the United States. It is only a matter of time before the
first anti-Obama billboard goes up, some experts speculate.

Mr. Alarcón, the National Assembly president, did give Mr. Obama credit
for using language that is "more peaceful, and civilized and open" than
his predecessor. But he said that it was clear to him that the White
House was too distracted with other issues to make Cuba a priority.

Others in the Cuban government take matters further, maintaining that
Mr. Obama, despite some initial steps toward rapprochement, has
continued to follow the Bush administration's goal of toppling the
Communist leadership. "In the last few weeks we have witnessed the
stepping up of the new administration's efforts in this area," Raúl
Castro told Cuba's National Assembly during its annual session on Dec.
19. "They are giving new breath to open and undercover subversion
against Cuba."

He was referring to the detention this month of an American contractor
distributing cellphones, laptops and satellite equipment in Cuba on
behalf of the Obama administration. The Cubans have accused the
contractor, whose identity has not been made public, of giving the
equipment to civil society groups in Cuba without permission. For its
part, the Obama administration complains that Raúl Castro is running the
island exactly like his brother did, without fundamental freedoms and
with continued abuses against political opponents. But Cuban officials
say Washington's insistence on more democracy in Cuba continues an old
pattern of meddling in their country's sovereign affairs.

"If the American government really wants to advance relations with Cuba,
I recommend they leave behind the conditions of internal governance that
they are trying to impose on us and that only Cubans can decide," Raúl
Castro said in his assembly speech.

Cuba continues to press its own issues with the United States, arguing,
for instance, that Mr. Obama ought to immediately pardon five Cuban
agents, known on the island as the Cuban Five, who are serving long
prison terms in the United States for gathering information about Cuban
exile groups in south Florida.

Mr. Alarcón reiterated a proposal that Raúl Castro has made on more than
one occasion: the exchange of political prisoners in Cuba for the five
Cubans held in the United States

The Cubans also insist that the Obama administration extradite to
Venezuela Luis Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro militant accused of
helping to blow up a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73 people. Mr.
Posada, who is living in Miami on bail, faces charges in federal court
in Texas for making what the government says were false statements to
immigration officials. An immigration judge has ruled that he cannot be
sent to Venezuela, a close ally of Cuba, because he faces a high
likelihood of torture there.

"With the previous administration, it didn't make sense to talk about
anything," said Mr. Alarcón. "This administration came to office
pledging to change and to improve relations. Obama has nothing to do
with the past but he's finished his first year and so far nothing has
happened with these issues."

Mr. Smith, now a Cuba analyst at the Center for International Policy who
advocates a lifting of the American trade and travel bans on Cuba, was
supposed to accompany Barry McCaffrey, a retired American Army general,
on a trip to Havana from Jan. 3 to 6 to discuss how the two countries
could cooperate on fighting drug trafficking. But General McCaffrey
pulled out, incensed by recent criticisms of Mr. Obama by Cuban officials.

"This type of shallow and vitriolic 1960s public diplomacy also makes
Cuban leadership appear to be nonserious, polemical amateurs," he said
in a letter to Mr. Smith. "President Obama is the most thoughtful and
nonideological U.S. chief executive that the Cubans have seen in 50 years."

At the same time, still hopeful that the two countries can put their
grudges aside, Mr. Smith said the United States should continue efforts
to improve relations by removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of
terrorism, for instance, and by closing Radio Martí and TV Martí, the
anti-Castro broadcasts financed by the United States government and sent
from American soil to Cuba.

Some Cuban exiles, however, argue that Mr. Obama has gone far enough and
that it is Cuba's turn to make a meaningful gesture.

In Cuba, Hopeful Tenor Toward Obama Is Ebbing - (31 December

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