Sunday, March 08, 2009

Obama will use spring summit to bring Cuba in from the cold.

Despite CIA plots, a US-backed exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs and four and a half decades of economic sanctions, Castro outlasted nine US presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton, and faced increased hostility under George W. Bush, who tightened enforcement of financial sanctions and a travel ban.

So it is safe to say that US policy towards Cuba has not been working. It has certainly not produced anything like the fall from grace that the US intended for the revolutionary regime who seized control in 1959.

Obama, it appears, recognises this and is ready to make moves which accept that reality, even if he is not yet ready to simply accept Cuba as she is.

President Barack Obama is poised to offer an olive branch to Cuba in an effort to repair the US's tattered reputation in Latin America.

The White House has moved to ease some travel and trade restrictions as a cautious first step towards better ties with Havana, raising hopes of an eventual lifting of the four-decade-old economic embargo. Several Bush-era controls are expected to be relaxed in the run-up to next month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to gild the president's regional debut and signal a new era of "Yankee" cooperation.

The administration has moved to ease draconian travel controls and lift limits on cash remittances that Cuban-Americans can send to the island, a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families.

"The effect on ordinary Cubans will be fairly significant. It will improve things and be very welcome," said a western diplomat in Havana. The changes would reverse hardline Bush policies but not fundamentally alter relations between the superpower and the island, he added. "It just takes us back to the 1990s."

Of course, this is partly an acceptance on Obama's part that, during the Bush years, Latin America - once considered America's backyard - has gone distinctly left wing. And the US's stance towards Cuba is now regarded by most of Latin America as "anachronistic and vindictive."

Obama's proposed Cuba measures would only partly thaw a policy frozen since John F Kennedy tried to isolate the communist state across the Florida Straits. "It would signal new pragmatism, but you would still have the embargo, which is the centrepiece of US policy," said Erikson.

Wayne Smith at the Centre for International Policy, Washington DC, said: "I think that the Obama administration will go ahead and lift restrictions on travel of Cuban Americans and remittance to their families. He may also lift restrictions on academic travel.

"There are some things that could be done very easily - for example it's about time we took Cuba off the terrorist list. It's the beginning of the end of the policies we have had towards Cuba for 50 years. It's achieved nothing, it's an embarrassment."

Wayne Smith, a former head of the US Interest Section in Havana, famously said Cuba had the same effect on American administrations as the full moon had on werewolves.

Obama came to power saying that he would change some of the outdated ways of thinking of Washington, and nowhere is that thinking more outdated than in the US's policies towards Cuba. Indeed, nine US presidents have kept this policy going even when it was shown to be counterproductive. When it became obvious that sanctions were actually helping Castro, by portraying him as the little man standing up to the bully oppressor, the US kept the stance going simply because they couldn't think of anything else to do.

So any softening of this stance will do a lot to help the US restore it's image across much of Latin America, but Obama could go even further.

It is time to end the embargo of Cuba, as it no longer serves any real purpose. No-one really believes that it is going to help topple the government, so why are the US doing it? Fifty years of sanctions have achieved nothing, so it is surely time to try another tack.

Obama is holding out an olive branch, but he could go much further. The US regularly does deals with regimes much more abhorrent than the one in Cuba. Which is why their Cuba policy appears so vindictive. It is not based on principle, or certainly not on any principle which they regularly maintain anywhere else.

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