Friday, January 16, 2009

Caution in Cuba about a new US

CUBA-US: After Deadlock, How to Resist the 'Siren Songs?'

By Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jan 14 (IPS) - In spite of shortcomings, unfulfilled dreams and doubts, one of the unquestioned merits of the Cuban revolution, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, is the sense of independence and sovereignty in this small island state, geographically so close to the most powerful nation in the world.
"First, (the revolution) demonstrated that it was possible to escape the orbit of the United States, even in Latin America; then, that a small country could survive after being set adrift, without a protecting power, as happened when the Soviet Union disappeared," Josefina Paredes, a young Cuban researcher on the theory and practice of theatre, told IPS.

In her view, that is the legacy bequeathed to the next generation by the political process that turned 50 on Jan. 1, whose leaders have lived in confrontation with every U.S. administration since 1959.

Sonia Benavides, a 28-year-old Cuban now studying in the United Kingdom, says she is unwilling to put up with what she finds lacking in the country of her birth. "We lack free will, the possibility of thinking in another colour scheme, or of following the ideology of Feng Shui (a traditional Chinese cultural practice) if we want to," she said.

However, she said that had it not been for the revolution, the island would be "a banana republic where U.S. dollars, U.S. masters and U.S. ideology would be law." That is why, outside of Cuba, "we feel pride in being different, courageous, recognised for standing up to our northern neighbour," she said.

In her own experience, the revolution gives young Cubans "the infinite satisfaction of saying, through chattering teeth in the height of an English winter, 'I'm from Cuba,' and seeing the looks of amazement, surprise, curiosity and admiration on people's faces. Yes, admiration!"

"When you're surrounded by people from everywhere from Tibet to Greenland, this gives you a special sense of uniqueness. It's a reaction that only Cuba evokes. It puts another revolution before us," Benavides said by email from London.

Among critics of the government, Manuel Cuesta, spokesman for the moderate dissident group Arco Progresista, says that the "only solid achievement" over the past half century "has to do with the cycle of Cuban independence and sovereignty."

Cuba was subjected first by Spain and then by the United States as its colonial masters, and even when self-government was achieved in 1906, the U.S. retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and supervise its finances and foreign relations.

In the first half of the 20th century the country underwent several coups, invasions and occupations. "This historic problem was ended by the revolution," Cuesta told IPS.

In his view, the consensus on Cuban independence and sovereignty is important in order to achieve what "remains to be done" in the country, such as racial integration, democratisation, and progress towards "a new social pact," without which Cuba "will be unable to become reconciled to itself and move on."

This consensus is also essential given the arrival at the White House next week of the first U.S. president born after 1959 -- that is, during Cuba's revolutionary era -- and the prospect of change in the five-decade-old confrontation between Havana and Washington, which has imposed an economic embargo on the island for most of that time.

President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20, spoke of possible "direct diplomacy" with Cuba during his election campaign and promised, apparently in the even more immediate term, to eliminate restrictions on the sending of cash remittances to family members and on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens or residents of Cuban origin.

Cuban authorities apparently perceive that a real and enduring easing of relations with the "ideological enemy" poses a major challenge to a society in which 70 percent of the population was born after the revolution, and many are not entirely convinced of the "evils" of capitalism.

If Obama keeps his promise, "a new stage in the ideological battle between the Cuban Revolution and imperialism will be born, and it will be necessary to design a new theoretical and propagandistic conception of our ideas and their origins," Armando Hart, a historic figure in the Revolution led by Fidel Castro, wrote in an article in the official newspaper Granma.

Hart said that up to one million Cubans and their descendants living abroad, as well as foreigners, might choose to visit the island, ushering in "the immense challenge of facing a new era in the cultural fight." He recommended digging deep into the writings of Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and Cuban independence hero José Martí to strengthen socialist convictions.

Similar concerns seemed to hover over the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, when President Raúl Castro asked the island's future leaders not to succumb to "the enemy's siren songs," to remain united with the people and to learn "from history."

It is incumbent on "the historical leadership of the Revolution to prepare the new generations to take up the enormous responsibility of continuing to carry forward the revolutionary process," President Castro said in his speech in Santiago de Cuba, on Jan. 1.

The previous day, in an interview on Cuban television, the president reiterated his government's position on possible dialogue with the new U.S. administration. "We are willing to talk with Mr. Obama, wherever and whenever he decides, but under absolute equality of conditions, as equal to equal," said Castro, who emphasised that there would be "no unilateral gestures" from Cuba.

As the time for rapprochement with its neighbour nears, the Cuban government made strenuous efforts in 2008 to strengthen its relationships with traditional friends like China and Russia, to diminish tensions with the European Union, and to achieve definitive reintegration with Latin America and the Caribbean by becoming a member of the Rio Group, the main regional political forum.

Freedom House Statement

Obama Administration Should Pursue New Approach to Promote Democracy in Cuba

January 7, 2009

The United States should reinvigorate efforts to advance human rights and democracy in Cuba, Freedom House said today. One key element of a strengthened policy would be the lifting of U.S. legal restrictions on American citizen travel to the island.

Cuba has consistently received either the lowest or second-lowest ratings on political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House since it first began publishing the global Freedom in the World survey in 1972. Cuba’s citizens are denied most fundamental rights, including the right to elect their government, participate in political opposition, freely express their views, demonstrate, participate in trade unions, own property, travel, or access information free of government control. Since Raul Castro succeeded his brother as leader of Cuba, some nominal reforms have been announced, though their impact on the lives of Cubans remains negligible.

“Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries in the world,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. “It is well past time to reassess a policy that impedes the ability of American citizens to freely interact with Cubans on a large scale and thus expose them to unfettered information about the outside world. We call on the incoming administration of Barack Obama to reexamine the embargo and to immediately lift the restrictions on remittances and travel to and from the island.”

The United States first began introducing economic sanctions against Cuba in 1960 following that government’s seizure without compensation of U.S. assets on the island. Current U.S. sanctions, which strictly limit trade with Cuba to cash-only sales of U.S. farm products and medical supplies, are unique to all other U.S. sanction policies in that they also prohibit U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba unless they obtain a U.S. government waiver.

“While the Bush administration expanded American support for democracy activists in Cuba, U.S. policy would be even more effective if Americans were allowed to engage more freely with Cuban counterparts,” Windsor continued. “Those countries that have moved from dictatorship to democracy in recent decades have done so in large part because of the movement of people and ideas across borders.”

The United States does not impose similarly restrictive travel sanctions on Americans to other regimes that receive Freedom House’s lowest freedom ratings, including Burma, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.


Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Cuba since 1972.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cuba at Clinton Confirmation Hearing

CLINTON: Throughout our hemisphere, we have opportunities to enhance our relationships that will benefit all of us. We will return to a policy of vigorous involvement, partnership even, with Latin America, from the Caribbean to Central America to South America. We share common political, economic, and strategic interests with our friends to the south, as well as many of our citizens who share ancestral and cultural legacies. We're looking forward to working on many issues during the Summit of the Americas in April and taking up the president-elect's call for a new energy partnership around shared technology and new investments in renewable energy.


BARRASSO (R-WY): Thank you.

Could I shift a little bit to Cuba? As you know, right now we have strict laws and regulations limiting economic transactions with -- with Cuba, with relatives of folks who are here. Any thought on lifting restrictions on families to visit and send -- and send things to Cuba?

CLINTON: Senator, the president-elect is committed to lifting the family travel restrictions and the remittance restrictions. He believes, and I think it's a very wise insight, that Cuban-Americans are the best ambassadors for democracy, freedom and a free market economy.

And as they are able to travel back to see their families, that further makes the case as to the failures of the Castro regime -- the repression, the political denial of freedom, the political prisoners -- all of the very unfortunate actions that have been taken to hold the Cuban people back.

You know, our policy is, first and foremost, about the freedom of the Cuban people and the bringing of democracy to the island of Cuba. We hope that the regime in Cuba, both Fidel and Raul Castro, will see this new administration as an opportunity to change some of their typical approaches.

Let those political prisoners out. Be willing to, you know, open up the economy and lift some of the oppressive strictures on the people of Cuba. And I think they would see that there would be an opportunity that could be perhaps exploited.

But that's in the future, whether or not they decide to make those changes.

My comment on the testimony can be read here.

Reach Out to Cuba from LA Times

From the Los Angeles Times
Reach out to Cuba
Obama should seize the chance to normalize relations with Havana.
By William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh

January 12, 2009

Not since Richard Nixon went to China has an intractable foreign policy issue been so ripe for resolution as U.S. relations with Cuba are today.

As with China, bilateral hostility has persisted long after the causes of the initial break have ceased to hold sway, held in place by seemingly implacable domestic opposition to normalizing relations and the policy inertia of official Washington. When Nixon broke the stalemate by announcing his impending trip in 1972, the pro-Taiwan "China lobby" proved to be a paper tiger, and the foreign policy establishment heaved a great sigh of relief that such a manifestly irrational, ineffective and anachronistic policy had finally been put to rest.

U.S. policy toward Cuba today, like policy toward China in 1972, is overdue for change. Relations broke down 50 years ago because Washington was unwilling to countenance a Latin American client state escaping the orbit of U.S. hegemony, and because Fidel Castro was determined to do just that. The Soviet Union's willingness to provide Cuba an essential safety net brought Cold War confrontation to the Western Hemisphere, escalating the U.S.-Cuba skirmish to potential Armageddon.

These original insults to U.S. interests have long since faded. The end of the Cold War ended Havana's pretensions to world power and its threat to U.S. strategic interests. Cuban troops came home from Africa and no longer train aspiring Latin American guerrillas. Castro, who relished tweaking the noses of U.S. presidents and built both his domestic support and international prestige on defying them, has, since his illness, retired to the role of pundit. His more pragmatic younger brother, Raul, abstains from the anti-American rhetoric that made Fidel famous, and on several occasions has offered dialogue.

Long before Nixon went to China, the rest of the world community had acknowledged that China was governed from Beijing, not Taiwan. U.S. allies in Latin America and Europe, which followed Washington's lead half a century ago by breaking ties with Cuba, today have normal economic and diplomatic relations with the island. Last October, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 17th time in as many years to condemn the U.S. embargo by a vote of 185 to 3. In December, 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations in the Rio Group granted Cuba full membership and called for an end to the U.S. embargo. A policy adopted half a century ago to isolate Cuba today isolates only the U.S.

Several of Barack Obama's predecessors in the White House considered normalizing relations, but something always went awry. John F. Kennedy hoped to win Cuba back from the Soviet camp by exploiting Castro's anger at Moscow for negotiating an end to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis without consulting him. Kennedy's diplomacy began through private envoys and was on the verge of graduating to talks between U.S. and Cuban officials at the United Nations when Kennedy was killed.

During Gerald Ford's administration, Henry Kissinger set his sights on detente with Havana. The efficacy of isolating Cuba had already begun to break down as allies in Latin America and Europe, one by one, restored normal ties with the island. Using journalist Frank Mankiewicz as a courier, Kissinger sent Castro a letter proposing talks to normalize relations, and Castro agreed. Over the next 18 months, U.S. and Cuban diplomats met secretly half a dozen times, in venues as varied as the grungy cafeteria at the LaGuardia airport terminal and the swanky Pierre Hotel in New York. Before the dialogue could gain traction, however, it was interrupted by Cuba's decision to send 30,000 combat troops to halt South Africa's intervention in Angola.

Jimmy Carter, like President-elect Obama, believed in the value of engaging adversaries. Within weeks of assuming office, Carter ordered the government to resume negotiations with Havana. "I have concluded that we should attempt to achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba," he declared in a presidential directive in March 1977. In quick succession, U.S. and Cuban negotiators signed agreements on fishing and maritime boundaries and posted diplomats in each other's capitals for the first time since relations were severed in 1961.

But when Cuba expanded its role in Africa by sending troops to defend Ethiopia's leftist government from invasion by neighboring Somalia, Carter decided to condition normalization on Cuba's withdrawal. After that, he backed away from normalization, even though a secret dialogue with Cuba continued during the remainder of his presidency.

By the time Bill Clinton took the oath of office, the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union dissolved. As Washington normalized relations with other former enemies, from Russia to Vietnam, the time seemed right to end the Cold War in the Caribbean too. But Clinton confronted a new obstacle -- the wealthy, well-organized and politically astute lobby of Cuban Americans in southern Florida. Although Clinton officials generally favored better relations with Havana, the president recoiled at the political price. Nevertheless, in a secret agreement brokered by Mexican President Carlos Salinas in 1994, during a crisis of dangerous attempted raft crossings to Florida by Cubans trying to leave the island, Clinton promised Castro a dialogue to move toward normalization. Talks produced a new migration agreement in 1995 but faltered in February 1996, when Cuban MIG fighters shot down two civil aircraft that had violated Cuban airspace, killing the four Cuban American pilots.

As Obama enters the White House, he enjoys many of the same propitious conditions that moved Kennedy, Ford, Carter and Clinton toward better relations with Havana. Kennedy sought to take advantage of the Cuban leadership's disenchantment with Moscow, which made it more open to U.S. blandishments; Obama faces new Cuban leaders who covet the economic benefits from travel, trade and investment that better relations would bring.

Ford and Kissinger realized that the U.S. policy of hostility toward Cuba was hurting U.S. relations abroad more than it was hurting Castro; Obama faces allies in Latin America and Europe that are virtually unanimous in their opposition to current U.S. policy.

Carter believed implicitly that engagement with Havana would prove more productive than isolation; Obama echoed those sentiments during the campaign.

Clinton hoped to gradually improve relations but was stymied by Cuban American opposition; Obama faces a less monolithic Cuban American community that has expressed growing support for engagement. A November poll of Cuban Americans in southern Florida found for the first time that a majority (55%) favors lifting the embargo. Obama's relative success among Cuban American voters (he won 35% of them in Florida, compared with just 25% for John Kerry in 2004) demonstrated that a Democrat could take a moderate stance on Cuba policy and still make inroads with this solidly Republican constituency.

This month marks not only the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution but also the anniversary of the formal break in U.S.-Cuban relations on Jan. 3, 1961. For perhaps the first time in the last half a century, both the policy logic and political realities of U.S.-Cuban relations are aligned to allow President Obama to cut the Gordian knot that has bedeviled so many of his predecessors. During the campaign, Obama pledged to meet with Raul Castro as part of a new policy of engagement. Summits require careful preparation, of course, but Obama should keep his pledge sooner rather than later.

For all Nixon's faults, his trip to China is remembered as a courageous, farsighted initiative that opened a new era in Sino-American relations. A trip to Cuba by President Obama would be no less historic.

William M. LeoGrande is dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University; Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. They are coauthors of a forthcoming book, "Talking with Fidel: The Untold History of Dialogue between the United States and Cuba.",0,1929453.story

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cuban Hopes for Obama

In Cuba, Pinning Hopes on Obama
Many Islanders Expect Better Relationship With U.S. Under New President
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 7, 2009; A08

HAVANA -- Vicente González says that although Barack Obama is no Karl Marx -- "he is a capitalist and likely an imperialist" -- he has high hopes that the new president could begin to warm the relationship between Cuba and the United States, which remains frozen in a Cold War time warp. "It is time," the Havana barber said, perhaps unwittingly repeating the Obama slogan, "for a change."

The world has numerous expectations of the incoming president, but many Cubans, who live on state salaries that average $20 a month, seem to possess an outsized hope that Obama will somehow transform their lives.

All along Neptune Street, a chaotic, dusty, crowded avenue that runs through the heart of central Havana, people in ration-card shops, state-run cafeterias and crumbling hallways spoke relatively openly about their desire to see the new U.S. president do something -- almost anything -- to help end the official hostilities between the two countries.

Alejandro Rodríguez, who repairs toasters for a living, just wants to visit his relatives in Miami. "This is a problem between governments, not between people," he said. "Yet we suffer." He was turned down for a visa.

Raymundo Quirino, a sculptor, would not mind seeing a few cruise ships from the United States dock in Havana's harbor. "Good for business," he said. "And for the exchange of ideas, thoughts, dreams."

Yvonne Portuondo, a hairdresser, would like to see an end to the decades-long trade embargo, which restricts imports of food and medicine and forbids most Americans from traveling to Cuba. "The embargo should have nothing to do with letting people see their families," she said.

Perhaps sensing that unmet expectations might lead to popular frustration, or even anger, Cuban President Raúl Castro on Friday sought to pour some cold water on the prospect of big changes in the relationship between the Communist-run island and the country 90 miles to the north.

"There is now a president who has raised hopes in many parts of the world," said Castro, who assumed the presidency when his ailing older brother Fidel resigned in February and has made a few small changes, such as allowing Cubans to own cellphones and stay at tourist hotels. "I think they are excessive hopes because, though he may be an honest man, and I think he is, and a sincere man, and I think he is, one man cannot change the destiny of a nation, much less the United States."

"Hopefully I'm wrong about that and Mr. Obama has success," Raúl Castro said, speaking on state television last week, the day after he celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and warned his country to resist the "siren's song of the enemy," meaning the United States. He reiterated a willingness to meet Obama but was not effusive or concrete. "Gesture for gesture, we are ready to do it whenever it may be, whenever they may decide, without intermediaries, directly," Castro said. "But we are in no rush, we are not desperate."

During his campaign, Obama promised to quickly and unilaterally take two steps: to allow Cuban Americans to travel as often as they like to visit relatives in Cuba and to allow them to send family as much money as they want.

Currently, under a policy initiated by the Bush administration to further squeeze the Cuban government, Cuban Americans are permitted to visit the island only once every three years to see immediate family and to send only up to $300 in cash remittances every three months.

Gift packages are restricted to food, medicine, radios and batteries. Americans without family in Cuba are generally forbidden to visit the island. The Bush administration also tightened the screw on visits by academics, students and religious groups.

Naturally, there are ways around the restrictions. U.S. visitors often fly through Mexico or another country and ask Cuban immigration officials not to stamp their passports. Also, Cuban Americans visiting the island often bring in envelopes stuffed with cash. One Cuban American businessman from Miami, staying at a hotel in the Miramar neighborhood, said last week that he had brought in $25,000 to pass out to relatives and friends. "I'm Santa Claus," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The Castro government has long pointed to the U.S. embargo as a main cause of Cuba's economic struggles. But many Cuba experts in the United States suggest that the Castro government uses the embargo as an excuse for failures of the socialist-run economy. Legally, for example, U.S. farmers shipped more than $430 million in food to Cuba in 2007, despite the embargo, making the United States the largest supplier of food to Cuba. And many modern products desired by Cubans -- cellphones, sneakers, MP3 players, cars -- are not made in the United States but in nations such as China, which has a friendly relationship with Cuba and has extended it an $800 million line of credit. The Cuban government also severely restricts travel by its citizens -- for fear that they may not return.

All of this is understood by the residents on Neptune Street. Many said they understood that Cuba was probably far down on Obama's list of priorities. They cited the world financial crisis and the war in Iraq as more pressing problems. Still, they clung to the hope that Obama might help open up their lives a bit.
"If he does everything he promised, I'm in favor of him," said Enriqueta Martinez, a cafeteria worker at a state-run company on Neptune Street. Co-worker Digna Curbera said, "We all know nothing will happen in a day. These things take time. But he could make the world a better place."

Along the street, people said they were impressed -- and many said they were surprised -- that the United States elected a person of mixed race as president. About 60 to 70 percent of Cubans are thought to be black or of mixed race.
"In Cuba, we are a big mix, so it is no big deal for us. But for the United States? I think it is very important. I think the Americans voted for him not because of the color of his skin but for his ideas and his character," said Portuondo, the hairdresser. "That was impressive for us. We talk about it."

The residents of Neptune Street did not openly criticize their government, not on the record to a reporter from Washington, though several offered biting criticism of the state, as many Cubans will do, quietly. About half of the people approached for interviews declined to give their names.

"People say it is going to be better. But we don't know that, do we? There's an anti-Cuba mafia in Miami, who control the whole thing, so maybe he can't make many changes," said Yodelkis Gutiérrez, speaking of the Cuban exile community in South Florida, which has dominated policy toward the Castro government for 50 years. Gutiérrez described himself as "just like everybody, a worker." He said, "Most of the time, presidents make a lot of promises. We'll see. We're all told what our governments want us to hear, you know what I mean?"

Lázaro Rodríguez, a history teacher, said he understood Americans were wary of Cubans, too. "We're a socialist country, a communist country," he said. "But we're trying to adapt ourselves, too, to the new realities, the global economy. We don't want to change our system but to perfect it. And why not have better relations with the United States. It's time."

At a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Brazil last month, Castro offered to meet with Obama. In November, he told actor Sean Penn during an interview for the Nation magazine that he would be willing to meet Obama on "neutral ground" and suggested the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, saying that Obama could return the land to Cuba and that he would give Obama the American flag to take home.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Transcript of Raul Castro on US Relations

Journalist: Since the recent result of the presidential election in the United Status, various analysts in the international press have speculated that there are expectations of change with Barack Obama’s rise to the White House. What is your assessment of that?

Raúl Castro: Now there is a president that has aroused hopes in many parts of the world; I think excessive hopes, because although he is an honest man, and I believe that he is, a sincere man, and I believe that he is, one man cannot change the destiny of a country, and far less – I mean one man alone – in the United States. He can do a lot, he can take positive steps, he can advance just ideas, he can curb the tendency, almost uninterrupted since the emergence of the United States, of almost all presidents to have had their war, or their wars. He said that he goes to get out of Iraq, good news. He says he’s going to double the forces in Afghanistan, bad news. The solutions to the problems of the world cannot be founded on war.

I think that there is no solution in Afghanistan, except for one: to leave the Afghanis in peace. Only Alexander the Great entered that country and returned unscathed, maybe because he married an Afghani princess, but, above all, because he left quickly. The British suffered a defeat there in the 19th century; in the 20th century the Soviets suffered another defeat, which we all experienced, and in the 21st century the U.S. and other forces remaining in Afghanistan will also suffer a defeat. These are realities and that is negative.

The vast resources that they are being dedicated to military matters, to war, since the war in Vietnam… Why the Vietnam War? Why the aggression? Close to 60,000 U.S. soldiers killed for what? I do not know the huge quantity – it must be two or three time greater – of those disabled, wounded, mutilated. Why four million Vietnamese from both parts killed? For what objectives? What did they achieve? Why the 50-year blockade of Cuba, what have they achieved? They have made us stronger, we feel prouder, our resistance, we are stronger, we are more confident.

I hope that I am wrong in my appraisal. Hopefully Mr. Obama will have some successes; in terms of us, that he is successful, but in a just policy, and that he can help to solve, with the power that they have, the grave problems of the world.

Our policy is well-defined: any day that they want to discuss, we’ll discuss, in equality of conditions; as I have already said, without even the smallest shadow over our sovereignty and as equals. And, as is usually the case, or was the case, that from time to time someone would come along to ask us to make a gesture, just as I received a letter from a former president suggesting – before the U.S. elections – that changes were approaching and that it would be good if Cuba was to make a gesture, with the same kindness that he wrote me I responded: the time for unilateral gestures is over; gesture for gesture. And we are disposed to talk whenever they decide, without intermediaries, directly. But we are not in any hurry, we’re not desperate, and, of course, we have said it and Fidel has said it for years: we will not talk with the stick and the carrot, that time is over, that was in another period.

That is our position, we shall go on patiently waiting. It’s incredible that with the Cuban temperament we have learned patience; we have it and at least in this we have demonstrated it.


The full interview available here provides an revealing perspective on US-Cuba history, the place that any serious effort for reconciliation must begin

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Contradictory Comments on Obama by Raul

Raul Castro says hopes too high for Obama
Fri Jan 2, 2009 10:49pm EST

HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Barack Obama appears to be an honest and sincere man, but his election has awakened "excessive hopes" that the United States will change, Cuban President Raul Castro said in a television interview broadcast on Friday.

Castro repeated previous assertions that he is open to talks at any time with Obama, who takes office on January 20, but said he is not desperate to do so.

Obama has said he wants to ease the 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and meet with Cuban leaders as first steps toward normalizing relations with the Communist-run island 90 miles off U.S. shores.

"Now there is a president who has raised hopes in many parts of the world -- I think excessive hopes," Castro said in an interview on state-run television.

"Because even if he's an honest man -- and I believe he is -- a sincere man -- and I believe he is -- one man alone cannot change the destiny of a country and much less the United States,
" said Castro, who replaced his ailing older brother Fidel Castro as president in February.

"I hope I'm mistaken in my assessment. I hope Mr. Obama has success," he said.

"He can do much, he can take positive steps, he can put forth more just ideas, he can put a stop to the tendency of almost all U.S. presidents to have their war, or wars," he said.

The interview was taped on December 31, a day before Castro led celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the revolution that put his brother in power and turned Cuba to Communism at the height of the Cold War.

In a speech on Thursday, he spoke in harsh terms about U.S. treatment of Cuba and said the island can expect 50 years more of "incessant struggle" with an "enemy" that "will never cease to be aggressive, treacherous and dominant."

In the interview, he said Cuba would talk with the United States whenever the U.S. wants, but only as equals, "without the smallest shadow over our sovereignty."

"We're willing to do it when they say, without intermediaries, directly, but we're in no hurry, we're not desperate," Castro said.

(Reporting by Jeff Franks)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Seven Choices for the new Administration

The Obama Administration’s Choices on Cuba

As Cuba celebrates, and most of the world recognizes the significance of, the fiftieth anniversary of its revolution on January 1, the incoming Obama Administration faces several choices about whether and how it will address decades of mutual hostility and misunderstanding:

1) Will it respect Constitutional and human rights principles of freedom to travel -- or continue disingenuous cold war logic that the government has the power to bar the expenditure of funds necessary to exercise a fundamental right?

2) Will it honor Obama’s campaign pledges and the Democratic Party plank calling for immediate “unlimited travel and remittances” for Cuban Americans -- or, as reported from a transition team source, backslide to the Clinton Administration policy of annual visits and a fixed albeit higher-than-Bush level of remittances?

3) Will it exercise its authority to grant general licenses to eleven other categories of non-tourist travel including education, humanitarian, religious, cultural, sports and “support for the Cuban people” -- or wait for leadership from a divided Congress?

4) Will it listen to editorials from every leading US newspaper and to the 68% of Americans, including Cuban Americans, who want to end all restrictions on travel -- or accede to hard line exiles in Miami whose PAC money has been spread widely among Democrats in Congress and whose new champion is Senator Bob Menendez?

5) Will it follow Bill Clinton’s successful path of quickly ending the embargo of Vietnam and moving to normalize relations (without preconditions of human rights or democracy) -- or repeat his delayed and ineffective gradualism on Cuba?

6) Will it accept for humanitarian reasons Raul Castro’s proposal of mutual gestures, releasing prisoners each country feels are political victims of the other -- or follow the Bush Administration line of preferring Cuban dissidents remain incarcerated if they are not released on US terms?

7) Will it heed the virtually unanimous call from Western Hemisphere nations, European allies and the membership of the United Nations to lift our embargo -- or maintain the distrusted unilateralism of its predecessors?

Had Presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton been bound by the self-interested politics of Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian exile leaders, we would still have embargoes and no diplomatic relations with countries that are now vital US partners.

President Obama has the opportunity in the opening days of his term not only to reverse the harsh and illusionary policies of the Bush Administration, but also to begin to undo decades of failure that have benefited neither the Cuban nor American people and isolated us internationally.

Without action by Congress, Obama cannot restore the Constitutional right to travel to all Americans or lift the embargo, but he should not fail to rapidly open the door to a wide range of significant two way non-tourist exchanges that will create mutual understanding and trust, essential for both countries to repair more than a century of troubled relations.

[See recent calls upon President-elect Obama to modify or end restrictions on travel by a wide range of American organizations here Sign an on-line letter to Obama here ]


You can help us be more effective in reaching out to the Obama Adminstration by contacting those you know in the transition team and among prospective appointees and by making as generous a contribution as possible to sustain our work.