A broad spectrum of groups and individuals is
urging President-elect Barack Obama to go beyond his campaign pledge to lift
curbs on travel and remittances to their homeland by Cuban Americans and launch
a much broader process of normalization with Havana.
Several analysts contacted by IPS said they were encouraged by Tuesday's testimony
by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, who took a more hawkish position
on Cuba during her own presidential campaign last spring, when she was asked
about Obama's plans.
"The President-elect is committed to lifting family travel restrictions
and the remittance restriction," she said.
"...We hope that the regime in Cuba both Fidel and (President)
Raúl 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 that there would be an opportunity
that could be perhaps exploited."
In response to written questions, Clinton also disclosed that the incoming
administration planned to conduct a "review" of US policy toward
Havana that, among other issues, would include consideration of increasing US
agricultural sales to the island, bilateral cooperation on energy and the environment,
and whether or not Cuba should be dropped from the State Department's State
Sponsors of Terrorism List where it was first placed in 1982.
"Senator Clinton not only made clear that the Obama administration would
honor its commitment to restore Cuban-American family travel and financial support,"
said Sarah Stephens, whose organization, Center for Democracy in the Americas
(CDA) last week published a 100-page report on how the two countries can normalize
their relations in nine key areas, "but she also left the door open to
significant additional opportunities to engage down the road."
What with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and nearly
200,000 US troops deployed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cuba is unlikely
to rank at the top of the new administration's foreign-policy agenda.
But as a symbol of Obama's oft-stated willingness to engage rather than
isolate traditional foreign adversaries, Cuba, which has been treated by
Washington as an enemy state virtually since the elder Castro entered Havana
50 years and two weeks ago, could serve as a major touchstone, particularly
for the rest of Latin America.
"Obama can't change the tone in US-Latin America relations while continuing
the same basic policy toward Cuba," said Dan Erickson, a specialist with
the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) think tank and author of a new book on the
history of US-Cuban relations, The Cuba Wars.
"Ultimately, Cuba by itself is not that important to US Latin America
policy, but it has become an obstacle to better relations with other key Latin
America countries, like Brazil and Venezuela, that have repeatedly called for
the US to open up to Cuba," he said.
Erickson noted that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last month
"took the trouble of holding a whole Latin American summit for the purpose
of inviting Cuba, since it has been excluded [by the US] from the Organization
of American States (OAS)."
In her testimony, Clinton said the new administration would "return to
a policy of vigorous engagement throughout Latin America," and stressed
Brazil's importance, in particular, as a partner Washington needed to actively
During the presidential campaign, Obama took the most forthcoming position
on normalizing ties with Havana of any of the major candidates, although his
pledge to repeal unpopular restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush
on the freedom of Cuban Americans to travel to their homeland and send money
to their family members there was carefully coordinated with the views of the
Cuban-American National Federation (CANF), a key lobby group that remains strongly
anti-Castro and continues to support the 47-year-old US trade embargo.
Indeed, in an appearance before CANF last spring, Obama promised to maintain
the embargo against Havana as "leverage" a word repeated by Clinton
in her written testimony to promote political and economic change in Cuba.
At the same time, however, he stressed that he would "pursue diplomacy"
with Havana "without preconditions," and that, "if (Cuba) take(s)
significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political
prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations."
In his trip to Brasilia last month, Raúl Castro offered to send some
200 prisoners cited by Washington and their families to the United States in
return for five Cubans who were convicted of espionage here and suggested further
that his government was prepared to "make a gesture for a gesture."
He subsequently said Cuba was "willing to talk with Mr. Obama, wherever
and whenever he decides, but under absolute equality of conditions, as equal
The growing number of advocates for lifting the embargo, from the US Chamber
of Commerce (USCC) to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), believe
the moment is riper than ever to pursue that goal in earnest.
"Domestically, Obama owes far less to hard-line Cuban-Americans than did
President Bush," according to Erickson. "He won Florida without requiring
a majority of the Cuban-American vote and, in the end, he didn't even need Florida
to win the election. That gives him greater scope of movement."
"The political center of gravity has shifted since the campaign, and there's
much more political space to repeal the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans
and to engage in new and creative ways with the Cuban government," Stephens
told IPS. "I expect Obama to seize these historic opportunities and not
shrink from them."
Indeed, since the Nov. 4 election, a number of organizations have called for
effectively dismantling the embargo. Two weeks after Obama's victory, a blue-ribbon
inter-American commission convened by the Brookings Institution a number
of whose associates are expected to get senior posts in the new administration
called for Cuba's immediate removal from the terrorism list; the lifting
of all curbs on travel to the island, an end to restrictions on humanitarian
aid, and the re-integration of Havana into regional and global institutions,
like the OAS and the World Bank from which Washington has excluded it.
Two weeks later, the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) released a letter
to Obama signed by the heads of virtually all of the biggest US business associations,
including the USCC and the National Retail Federation, calling for the "complete
removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba."
"We recognize that change may not come all at once, but it must start
somewhere, and it must begin soon," it said.
The NFTC also released a report on specific steps Obama could take to ease
travel and trade restrictions without seeking legislation from Congress, some
of which were also cited in the new CDA report released last week. It identified
nine areas among them, search and rescue, anti-drug trafficking and other
law enforcement activities, health, energy exploration, and civil defense in
dealing with natural disasters where significantly enhanced cooperation
would benefit both countries.
Last week, Freedom House, a strongly anti-Communist group that receives substantial
government funding, called publicly for the first time for ending all restrictions
on remittances and travel to and from Cuba.
(Inter Press Service)