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Cuban Standoff

Half a century after the U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Cuba, Barack Obama stands as the latest in a long line of presidents to fail to promote major change on the island. If Obama is re-elected, he may have another shot at what some State Department officials refer to as “solving the Cuba problem.” But for now, and for the near future, it’s likely things will stay as they are.

To Chris Sabatini, policy director for the America’s Society, the U.S. and Cuba are “locked in a staring contest”, waiting for the other to blink first. There are many reasons for the standoff. One is that Obama has little authority to make changes to the embargo, even if he wanted to, because over the years that power has been ceded to Congress.

Another is that Congress is stalemated over Cuba, according to William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University and author of a number of books on U.S.-Cuba relations. Backers of the embargo don’t have enough support to tighten sanctions and lawmakers who want to ease the trade ban are also short of votes. “You’re not going to see much action in Congress, even after the election,” LeoGrande said.

November’s elections could shift the balance in both the Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate. It will also determine if Obama is re-elected. That’s why the Obama administration doesn’t want to do anything to encourage the mostly Republican exile community in the swing state of Florida to turn out en masse to vote for Mitt Romney, whom they now feel tepid about.

But Sabatini and LeoGrande say perhaps the most visible stumbling block to better relations is represented by Alan Gross, a Maryland man who worked as a subcontractor to a U.S. Agency for International Development program. Gross was arrested in Cuba and is serving a 15-year jail sentence for espionage because he smuggled high tech communications equipment to the island. Cuba has ignored the pleadings of the State Department to free Gross, even after Pope Benedict XVI asked the Cuban government to release him during a visit to the island earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rejected Cuba’s offer of a swap to free Gross in return for the release and return to Cuba of four spies serving time in a Florida jail and another who’s been released on probation.“Nothing is going to happen until Cuba frees Alan Gross,” a State Department official said.

Still, there have been minor changes in Cuba and in U.S.-Cuba relations since Obama assumed office. Early in his term, Obama kept a campaign promise to liberalize Cuban-American travel to Cuba, which had been severely restricted by the Bush administration. Obama also initiated a “people-to-people” policy that allows Americans with a purpose---such as academics, professionals attending an conference and amateur athletes--- to skirt the embargo’s restriction on travel to Cuba. That policy, first tried by former President Clinton, has spawned a run of trips to the island sponsored by U.S. universities and nonprofit groups.

Sabatini said political pressures have kept the Obama administration from touting any possible success of its policy. “They were hoping to open things a little and then run away and hope nobody noticed,” he said. But some did notice, including Cuban-American embargo supporters like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.. He held up Obama’s nominee to head a State Department office in charge of the Americas because he said increased travel to Cuba is enriching its government, and because he thinks most of the trips amount to no more than frivolous tourism that don’t help the Cuban people. Rubio released his hold on the nomination of Roberta Jacobson after the administration promised to impose a $65,000 fine on violators of the travel rules.

In May, the Obama administration made a tiny overture to Havana by granting visas to Mariela Castro Espín, Raul Castro’s daughter and a prominent advocate for gay rights who wanted to attend a conference in San Francisco and visit New York, and to Eusebio Leal, the prominent historian who is in charge of restoring Havana’s oldest neighborhoods. Leal, a senior member of the Cuban Communist Party, gave a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Once again, the move brought blistering criticism from a Cuban-American lawmaker. “The administration must stop bending over backwards to accommodate the needs, whims, and requests of this state sponsor of terrorism that, again, is located just 90 miles from U.S. shores,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. Sabatini said Obama administration efforts to improve relations right now “would take political courage, which so far appears to be lacking.”

Cuba is also mired in a political quagmire. It has made modest economic reforms, expanded self-employment, liberalized rules for family-run restaurants, gave Cuban farmers more flexibility to sell their products, and created fledgling real estate markets in big cities such as Havana and Santiago. Sabatini said Cuba’s modest economic reforms have “let the genie out of the bottle. ...They can’t go back but that doesn’t mean they’ll go forward. The Cuban government’s ability to stagnate is outstanding, but now it’s almost fermenting.” The Cuban government hasn’t been able to move forward on larger economic reforms, including a plan to lay off thousands of state workers. It hoped the newly unemployed workers would, in a controlled manner, boost Cuba’s tiny private sector.

While Raul Castro has been acting head of state since 2006, his more charismatic brother remains alive and kicking, sort of. The elder Castro has been publishing a column entitled “Reflections of Fidel” in Granma until they stopped abruptly last November. This led to rumors of his death which went viral on Twitter when the hashtag #fidelcastro became a trending topic. But just a few days later, Fidel was photographed with Iranian President Ahmedinejad, who declared him “healthy and fit.” Many Cuba watchers fear that there will be no change in U.S.-Cuba relations until these rumors come true.

LeoGrande is more optimistic. He said “people-to-people travel “has made a tremendous difference” in the way Americans and Cubans view each other. LeoGrande also believes Obama could use his existing authority to do much to change policy toward Cuba. He said the administration could respond to Cuba’s willingness to negotiate people-smuggling pacts and enter into new counternarcotics agreements. “It’s really a question of political will,” he said. “It’s really in our best interest to cooperate with them.”

But if Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins the White House, Washington’s policy toward Cuba is expected to return to Bush-era restrictions on travel. The hostility level would rise even more if Romney picks Rubio as his running mate. Lionel Sosa, advertising pioneer and adviser to John McCain, is among the GOP activists lobbying for Rubio. He said that if Romney picked the Florida senator, he’d boost his chances of winning the White House.

And so the Cuban standoff could continue indefnitely.


By Ana Radelat