US, Cuba seek improved relations but stumbling blocks remain
President Barack Obama says Cuba must first respect human rights and
follow through on releasing political prisoners before relations could
By MIMI WHITEFIELD
The United States and Cuba say they're interested in improving frosty
relations but both countries have stopped short of the steps the other
deems necessary to put the relationship on a better track.
"What we've tried to do is send a signal that we are open to a new
relationship with Cuba,'' President Barack Obama said Wednesday during
an online forum on Hispanic issues.
Earlier this week, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly,
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said Cuba wanted to "reiterate
the proposal of beginning a dialogue aimed at solving bilateral
problems, including humanitarian issues, as well as the offer of
negotiating several cooperation agreements to fight drug-trafficking,
terrorism, human smuggling, to prevent natural disasters and protect the
environment, even in the event of oil spills such as the one that
occurred at the British Petroleum platform in the Gulf of Mexico.''
But there are big caveats on both sides.
Obama said the United States is open to a new relationship "if the Cuban
government starts taking the proper steps to open up its own country
and... provide the space and respect for human rights that would allow
the Cuban people to determine their own destiny.''
For the Cubans, the U.S. trade embargo against the island and the
release of the "Cuban Five,'' a group of Cuban agents convicted of
spying in the United States, are the sticking points.
Despite exceptions to the embargo that allow the export of U.S.
agricultural products, foodstuffs and some other products and the Obama
administration's shift that allows most Cuban-Americans to travel to the
island at will, Rodríguez valued the negative impact of the
five-decades-old embargo at $975 billion. In his U.N. remarks Monday,
Rodríguez said he was calculating that value according to present world
gold prices, which have been at historically high levels this year.
Although Rodríguez mentioned changes that have been undertaken in Cuba
to make its economy and socialism more effective, Obama said "so far at
least what we haven't seen is the kind of genuine spirit of
transformation inside of Cuba that would justify us eliminating the
The president mentioned steps he has taken — allowing more remittances
"to create an economic space for [people] to prosper'' and allowing
Cuban-Americans to travel to the island more frequently — that "send a
signal that we're prepared to show flexibility.'' But he said he was
still waiting for a signal back from Cuba "that it is following through
on releasing political prisoners, or providing people basic human rights.''
Rodríguez, meanwhile, called on Obama to set the "Cuban Five'' free "as
an act of justice or a humanitarian gesture.''
During an address to the U.N. committee on counter-terrorism Wednesday,
Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno reiterated the call for
the release of the five, who were seeking information on U.S.-based,
"The things that each side is seeking are unlikely to happen,'' said
Phil Peters, a veteran Cuba watcher at the Lexington Institute. "Now
that we're in the campaign season, my belief is that absent some really
significant changes in Cuba, the administration is going to let it [Cuba
Neither Obama nor Rodríguez made mention of the case of jailed American
Alan Gross, a subcontractor who was convicted of crimes related to his
distribution of satellite telephone equipment in Cuba and sentenced to
15 years. But Peters said that although Rodríguez's comments on
humanitarian issues were "ambiguous,'' it was clear he was talking about
Earlier this month, the Gross family released a statement in which they
expressed hope that Gross would be released before the Jewish High Holy
Days, which began Wednesday evening.
Special Correspondent Stewart Stogel contributed to this report from the