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Published Sep. 14, 2009

It's sometimes hard to tell who is ruling Cuba these days.

After President Barack Obama's new Cuba policy was announced this month, it elicited seemingly contradictory responses from the Castro brothers.

Cuban President Raul Castro initially welcomed the new policy, which lifted travel and money transfer restrictions for Cuban-Americans. In an off-the-cuff speech, he even went as far as to say Cuba might have made some "errors" and was willing to enter into talks with Washington about "everything," from human rights to press freedom.

Then his ailing older brother, Fidel Castro, appeared to put the kibosh on any talk of a thaw in relations. In an essay Tuesday, he said his brother had been "misinterpreted," and accused Obama of "smugness" at a weekend summit in Trinidad and Tobago. If necessary Cuba would wait another eight years for the next American president to come along, he sniped.

Cuba observers and the general public alike are left wondering: Where do we stand now? Has anything really changed? Some pundits are already writing off Obama's Cuba overture.

It's hard to ignore a voice as powerful as Fidel Castro's. His health has improved of late, almost three years after he was forced to step down due to illness. He has received several visits from foreign heads of state, and publishes his regular "Reflections." He is also still the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, one of the nation's top posts.

But some analysts say we may be reading way too much into this.

"We are too often obsessed with trying to read the tea leaves in Cuba," said Carlos Saladrigas, 60, a successful Cuban-American businessman who co-chairs the Cuba Study Group, which supports relaxing policy toward Cuba. "The fact is we have very little intelligence about what goes on inside the Cuban regime."

While differences may or may not exist between the Castro brothers, there is no question that a debate is under way in Cuba in the runup to a major Communist Party congress this year.

Cuba faces huge economic challenges as it copes with rising import costs and falling revenue for nickel, its main export. The Reuters news agency last week reported the island was close to insolvency.

If Washington wants to get a better understanding of what is going on there, it makes more sense to engage Cuba, Saladrigas argues.

"Our policy needs to lessen the cost of change," he said. "The more we insist on an all-or-nothing approach, where they have to lose for us to win, then people who argue for change in Cuba do not have a viable alternative."

That certainly seems to be the new approach the White House is taking. Rather than respond to the noise from Havana, the Obama administration is keeping its eye on the ball.

Saladrigas was one of a handful of Cuba experts who earlier this year produced a detailed road map for U.S. policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. The report was led by Carlos Pascual, a high-flying Cuban-American diplomat who is expected to be announced soon as the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

The group was invited to the State Department on Tuesday for a 90-minute meeting with Thomas Shannon, who heads the Latin American section.

They were assured that Obama's announced policy shift was only a first step. An overall review of Cuba policy is being conducted before any more moves are announced.

"By no means is this the end of what Obama is going to do, regardless of what Castro says," said Joe Garcia, a director of the influential Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, who was briefed in advance by the White House on Obama's new Cuba policy.

Garcia described the early exchanges as "more about defining the terms" of a future dialogue than a sign of irreconcilable differences.

"The U.S. is willing to move as quickly as Cuba is willing to move," Garcia said, "but we are still going to move anyway."

Either way, Obama seems to have broad support for his new policy, even among Cuban-Americans, allowing him leeway to explore other avenues with Cuba.

According to a Gallup poll published Friday, 60 percent of Americans favor re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba. Gallup found 51 percent of Americans favor lifting the trade embargo. Another poll last week found that 67 percent of Cuban-Americans favor allowing all Americans to travel to the island.

With that broad public support, it is quite possible that before the year is out Congress will have removed the travel ban for all U.S. citizens.

It will be interesting to see what Fidel has to say about that.