By Catherine Cheney | 29 Feb 2012
In the first high-level meeting between the United States and Cuba since
former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met with Cuban President Raul Castro
in 2010, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Richard Shelby traveled to the island
last week to discuss the case of imprisoned American Alan Gross.
Though the case has strained relations between the two countries, and
though the U.S. remains the only country in the Western Hemisphere
without normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, there have been
improvements in the relationship, particularly over the past three years.
Geoff Thale, who oversees research and advocacy for the Washington
Office on Latin America, identified three significant changes in
particular since Barack Obama became president.
"The most general one is the lowering of tensions relative to those that
existed under the Bush administration," Thale said. "The second one is
the end to any restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and
remittances, which is a tremendous help for families, is good for the
Cuban economy and changes the dynamic. And the third is that the Obama
administration has relaxed the rules on academic, religious and other
organized travel between the two countries."
Though that represents progress, especially compared to the Cold War
nadir in U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuba's poor record on human rights and
political prisoners continues to make further gains difficult.
That said, Cuba released 100 political prisoners through the fall of
2011, Thale explained, and in December, the country announced that it
would release 2,900 prisoners in advance of an upcoming visit by Pope
Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church leadership has had direct dialogue
with the Cuban government, Thale said, and these discussions have led to
the release of political prisoners as well as the gradual opening of the
Cuba has also taken a number of steps to revive its economy, Thale
added, pointing to both the announcement that the Cuban government will
begin to reduce the size of the state sector and the expanded
opportunities for private sector employment.
"The rules have changed. Permits are easier to get. The number of
self-employed has tripled over the past year and a half. You can see it
on the streets," he said. "They have legalized the sale of homes and
cars in the private market and permitted the private sales of
construction materials. Now anyone who wants to go and buy cement and
paint and nails can do so, whereas it used to be controlled by the state."
Cuba has also improved its relations with Central and South America,
Thale said, describing its participation in regional bodies and pointing
specifically to Brazilian investment in the port city of Mariel, outside
of Havana, the capital.
As for Cuba's ties with the European Union, Thale described it as a
"funny" relationship. "Though the EU has normal diplomatic relations
with Cuba," he explained, "Cuba and the EU don't have full trade and
investment and economic development agreements."
Spain has been working to change this, Thale said, explaining that there
is extensive Spanish investment in the Cuban tourism sector. Earlier
this month, he added, a Spanish oil company began drilling the first
well in exploration of offshore oil fields northwest of Havana.
By contrast, progress in relations between the U.S. and Cuba is
ultimately limited, Thale said, by the fact that Cuba is no longer
considered to be of strategic importance to the U.S. But if the
exploratory oil drilling underway in Cuban waters leads to a major oil
discovery, Thale continued, "that would change the broader political
"The sort of political rationale for this level of U.S. sanctions on
Cuba disappeared at the end of the Cold War. There is a lot to criticize
about Cuba . . . but what there is to criticize is not enough to justify
our economic embargo," he said. "It reinforces our image of being a
bully to the rest of Latin America, but not so strongly that any
president feels like, 'I've got to change this.'"