Thursday, February 12, 2009

Improving Atmosphere

Cuba's President Castro Sends Positive Signals to the New Obama Administration

U.S. officials note the change in tone by Raul Castro and his ailing brother, Fidel

By Thomas Omestad
Posted February 11, 2009 US News & World Report

The Obama administration has taken note of remarks both by Cuban President Raul Castro and by his brother, former President Fidel Castro, expressing, in part, positive sentiments about Barack Obama and the significance of his presidency, according to a senior State Department official. Both Castros, using somewhat different language, have said they view Obama as intelligent and sincere in wanting to change U.S. foreign policy and see his presidency as historic.

The Castros' remarks have come since the U.S. election and have continued occasionally in interviews, comments to the media, and, in the case of Fidel Castro, his frequent articles in the Cuban press. "I think the statements are important. They've registered," said the State Department official.

U.S. policy toward Cuba, including the various restrictions that flow from a 47-year-old economic embargo, will be reviewed by Obama administration agencies. During the campaign, Obama said that he intended to remove restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans and that he favored well-prepared "direct diplomacy" with the island's communist government.

Outside analysts are watching closely for moves from either Washington or Havana to lessen tensions and begin a dialogue on some of the disputes dividing them.

The State Department official's comments also offer a sense of how Cuba's modest economic reforms­in agriculture and consumer purchasing­are being perceived in official Washington. "The steps have been very small. They've been very controlled," said the official. "They're looking for ways to signal they're capable of economic change."

On the internal scene in Cuba, the official spoke of a "significant desire, and even pressure, on them [Cuban officials] for social and economic reform." The official added, "The Cuban government has to respond in some fashion."


Comment: Reading between the lines, this suggests a willingness on the part of the Obama Administration to pay attention and treat with respect what is happening and being said in Cuba, and suggests a different quality of interpretation is coming from USINT. The first sign that real change may be on the way.

The Administration is in the midst of a major review of US policy toward Cuba. That is a good thing and could lead to significant initiatives in many areas before the President attends the Summit of the Americas on April 17th.

At the same time, President Obama has not yet implemented his campaign pledge to immediately allow unlimited Cuban American travel and remittances.

This should happen even while the policy review is taking place. Deaths and illnesses and family milestones do not wait for the resolution of political and strategic arguments in Washington.

Moreover, this is not the only travel decision the Administration will make. The President must choose soon whether to undo politically motivated Bush restrictions of 2004. He can authorize in a non-discriminatory manner general licenses for twelve categories of non-tourist travel: family, educational, humanitarian, religious, cultural, sports, "support for the Cuban people", etc.

An on-line letter to the President calling for non-tourist travel is approaching 1200 signers, many with individual comments.