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Cuba and United States drawing closer as new policies thaw frosty relations

Just days after implementing some of the most dramatic changes in Cuba policy in the past 20 years, President Barack Obama cautioned not to expect changes to come too swiftly. A relationship that has been frozen for 50 years, he said, "won't thaw overnight."

But overnight things appeared to get noticeably warmer when Cuba's President Raul Castro responded with surprising speed and conciliation.

"We have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything — human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything." He had said similar things before, though not quite as specifically.

No one can recall him (much less his older brother Fidel) ever saying anything like this: "We could be wrong, we admit it. We're human beings."

Just what the Cubans think they could be wrong about is still a mystery, but there is no mistaking that this has been a momentous week in the annals of U.S.-Cuba history.

On Monday, Obama abolished travel restrictions for Cuban Americans visiting family on the island. He removed limits on how much cash they could send their relatives and made it easier to send care packages. He encouraged American telecommunications companies to establish satellite and internet networks on the island.

The revamped Cuba policy did not go far enough for some who want more engagement with the island and an outright end to the 47-year-old embargo. Likewise it went too far for Miami's old guard of Cuban exiles who fled the island in the 1960s.

Still, some analysts suggest that of all the 11 presidents who have shaped U.S. policy toward the communist nation, Obama new policy may go furthest of all.

"It is a limited initial step that feels more like ethnic politics than foreign policy," said Julia Sweig, director of Latin America Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. "But it has generated lots of anticipation of more to come."

The Obama administration's policy shift also recognizes a major change in the landscape of U.S.-Cuban relations, analysts say. In November, Obama did not win the majority of the Cuban American vote in south Florida, but he did win the majority of votes of younger U.S.-born Cuban Americans under 30. It is that latter group who will increasingly have a voice in U.S.-Cuba policy.

"There's no downside in Cuban American politics for Obama," said Alfredo Balsera, a Cuban American communications consultant who worked on the Obama campaign. "There's only an upside."

A recent poll conducted by Florida International University indicate that the Miami exile community's longtime insistence on isolating the Castro regime does not dominate the political scene any more. Sixty-six percent of Cuban Americans support lifting the travel restrictions and 65 percent support sending money. Other polls shows the wider public embracing a new approach to Cuba as well.

Balsera highlighted the White House's authorization of U.S. telecom providers to establish fiber-optic cable, satellite TV and radio, and cellular roaming services between the U.S. and Cuba.

"What the president did was bring the U.S.-Cuba debate into the 21st century. Before Monday it was stuck in 1960s rhetoric," he said. (Who better than Obama, the self-confessed Blackberry addict, to bring foreign policy up to date with technology?)

Denied access to the world wide web via the high-speed U.S. cable networks only 90 miles away, Cuba must instead rely on slower satellite connections.

Of course it remains to be seen whether American companies will be able to introduce their wireless and cable technology into Cuba, a state which tightly controls access to information.

But that misses the point. By authorizing U.S. companies to offer these services, the Obama administration hopes to show that the United States is willing to open up to Cuba, if Cuba is willing to open up in return.

As more Cuban Americans visit the island, the political and economic pressure for improved ties is likely to build.

"It opened my eyes," said Ricky Arriola, a 40-year-old Cuban American CEO of a Miami-based marketing company, who visited Cuba for the first time in March. "I learned more (about Cuba) in a week there than during 40 years in Miami."

He was especially surprised how freely Cubans expressed their opinions. "The man on the street is well informed," he said, noting news is pirated from U.S. television channels.

Now that Cuban Americans are free to visit the island, it begs the question when all Americans will get the chance.

A bipartisan bill was recently introduced in both chambers of Congress seeking to lift the restrictions on U.S. travel to the island. It is expected to sail through the House of Representatives, but a battle is anticipated in the Senate where both Florida members, Republican Mel Martinez, who was born in Cuba, and Democrat Bill Nelson, oppose it.

Were it to pass, and American tourists began heading to Havana, it's hard to see how the embargo could survive much longer, analysts say.

Cuban American leaders aren't ready to throw away the embargo quite yet, but they are willing to see where this new policy leads. "We should see this as an opportunity to explore," said foundation director Joe Garcia. "The ball is in the Cuban court now."

It suddenly seems like a friendlier contest.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com or (305) 361-6393.

Cuba and United States drawing closer as new policies thaw frosty relations 04/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:04pm]

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