Obama represents hope for Cubans

President-elect Obama, right, has said he is willing to meet for talks with Cuban President Raul Castro.

President-elect Obama, right, has said he is willing to meet for talks with Cuban President Raul Castro.

HAVANA — Sitting in her cramped apartment in a pot-holed street in Old Havana, Odalys Calzadilla's eyes brighten when the subject turns to President-elect Obama.

"Do you think he will be different?" she asks.

Since Nov. 4, she and her husband have watched the election coverage over and over, looking for clues that might confirm their hopes that Obama will help end the hostility that has marked U.S.-Cuba relations for half a century. There are plenty of reasons to suggest their Obama-mania is not unfounded.

Obama has said he is willing to sit down for talks with Cuban President Raul Castro. And some analysts believe the 46-year-old U.S. embargo could be on its last legs, presaging the day Americans will flock back to Havana.

"This is a privileged moment for rethinking," said Damian Fernandez, a Cuban-American scholar at Purchase College in New York. "Changes are coming, and changes will be real."

But "factors of inertia" could limit how far those changes go, he said, referring to Washington's refusal to normalize relations with a communist state only 90 miles offshore, and Havana's resolve not to abandon its one-party political system.

Even so, "Obama represents a major generational transformation," said Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue. "He was only a twinkle in his mother's eye when (President) Eisenhower imposed the first sanctions in 1960."

"He doesn't have this vivid memory of the Cuban missile crisis that the baby boomer presidents have had," said Erikson. Nor is he beholden to hard-line Cuban-Americans who have set policy for so long.

At the same time, Raul Castro, 77, is considered more pragmatic than his ailing brother, Fidel, 82. The younger Castro has publicly acknowledged Cuba's dire economic crisis, which makes opening up the state-run economy almost inevitable.

Cuban officials will likely take their time sizing up Obama. "Gesture for gesture, we are ready to do it whenever it may be, whenever they may decide, without intermediaries, directly," Raul Castro said last week. "But we are in no rush, we are not desperate."

Obama's race and left-of-center support pose a curious situation for Cuba.

"If they don't work it out with someone who is black and fresh like Obama, there's going to be big problems," said Antonio Zamora, a Cuban-American lawyer and Bay of Pigs veteran who wants to end the embargo.

Obama says he doesn't support unilaterally lifting the trade embargo, but there are plenty of smaller steps he could take to create a new tone, experts say. These include diplomatic moves on issues such as migration, as well as fostering greater "people-to-people" exchanges, as existed during the Clinton years.

Some experts advocate more dramatic measures — removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, restoring full diplomatic ties and revoking Cuba's 1962 suspension from the Organization of American States.

During his campaign, Obama pledged to lift restrictions imposed by President Bush on travel to the island by Cuban-American families, as well as limits on money they can send to relatives. Currently, Cuban-Americans are permitted to visit the island only once every three years to see immediate family members, and to send up to $300 in cash remittances every three months.

Frank Sanchez, the former Tampa mayoral candidate and Obama's Latin America adviser, has said the new administration expects to see "concrete steps from the Cuban government," before considering other moves.

Alfredo Balsera, a Cuban-American communications consultant who briefed the candidate on Cuba policy, predicted other moves Obama might make: the resumption of twice yearly migration talks suspended in 2004 by Bush, and removal of an electronic billboard on the front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana that scrolls pro-democracy messages. Cuba calls the sign a deliberate provocation by the Bush administration.

"You won't see (Obama) trying to antagonize people by playing this cat-and-mouse game," Balsera said

Obama has stressed the need for change to come from within the island. "He believes in making Cubans less dependent on the Cuban regime," Balsera said, noting that the best way to do that is to promote contact between families inside and outside Cuba and the free flow of remittances. Cubans are so dependent on the government for food rations and other daily necessities they have no time to worry about "loftier ideals of democracy," Balsera said.

That message could easily be construed as subversive by Cuban officials. But it appeals to Cuban dissidents.

"We have had a culture of messianism here that salvation always comes from above and abroad," said Dagoberto Valdes, an activist in Pinar del Rio, referring to historic visits to Cuba by Pope John Paul II and former President Jimmy Carter. "Our message is that the solutions have to come from below and within."

Cuba's top concern — the fate of five convicted Cuban spies held in U.S. jails — will be harder to resolve. Cuba has suggested a prisoner exchange, for some of the more than 200 dissidents held in Cuban prisons. But most U.S. experts don't consider that an equal swap.

In the end, Cuba's "Obama-maniacs" might want to heed the words of their leader.

"I think they are excessive hopes," Raul Castro said recently, "because though (Obama) may be an honest man … and a sincere man, and I think he is, one man cannot change the destiny of a nation, much less the United States."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

fast facts

The last thaw

Former President Jimmy Carter engineered the most recent thaw between the two countries. Soon after taking office in 1977, Carter reached a fisheries and maritime boundaries treaty with Cuba that still stands. Relations were upgraded with the establishment of an "Interests Section" in each capital.

Carter also secured the release of 3,600 prisoners from Cuban jails before talks broke down over the presence of Cuban troops in Africa. Carter lost re-election before talks could resume, and the Reagan administration quickly launched a new anticommunist agenda.

Obama represents hope for Cubans 01/10/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 10:57pm]

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