US, Cuba advance thaw in relations

April 17, 2009 4:48:59 PM PDT
Trading their warmest words in a half-century, the United States and Cuba built momentum toward renewed ties on Friday, with President Barack Obama declaring he "seeks a new beginning" - including direct talks - with the island's communist regime. As leaders of the Americas gathered for a summit in this Caribbean nation, the head of the Organization of American States even said he'll ask his group to invite Cuba back after 47 years.

In remarks kicking off the weekend gathering of nations - of which Cuba was the only country in the region not represented - Obama repeated the kind of remarks toward the Castro regime that marked his campaign for the presidency.

"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," he said at the Summit of the Americas opening ceremony, according to his remarks released in advance by the White House. "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day."

Analysts cautioned that the week's developments were encouraging but do not necessarily mean normalized relations are around the corner.

"This is a thaw, but it's a thaw that's going to take some time," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "I wouldn't look for any dramatic breakthroughs.

Thert a nod from Washington, which contributes a huge portion of the OAS budget.

"We're going step by step," Insulza said. He called on the group to annul the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba because its "Marxist-Leninist" system was incompatible with OAS principles.

If two-thirds of foreign ministers agree at a meeting in Honduras next month, the communist government will be reinstated.

Obama, in his remarks, rejected what he called a false choice "between sticking to inflexible policies with regard to Cuba or denying the full human rights that are owed to the Cuban people."

However, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made clear that while Castro's new openness to change was welcome, the U.S. wasn't abandoning its demand for Cuba to start making concrete moves toward freedom.

"They are certainly free to release political prisoners," he said aboard Air Force One as Obama flew into Trinidad. "They're certainly free to stop skimming money off the top of remittance payments. They're free to institute greater freedom of the press."

And Castro didn't retreat from his criticism of U.S. policy, recalling Thursday that the United States has long tried to topple the government that he and his brother Fidel have presided over for 50 years.

"That's the sad reality," he said.

Said Peter DeShazo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "These are very preliminary steps, but they are significant."

The U.S. severed all diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, just three months before exiles launched their disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

The last significant effort toward talks were secret negotiations between an aide to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and an emissary from the Cuban Communist Party at a crowded coffee shop at New York's La Guardia Airport on Jan. 11, 1975. Negotiators met in New York hotels and private homes over several months, but the move died when Castro sent troops into Angola.

Obama was criticized during his campaign for saying he'd meet with Castro without preconditions, and Castro said during a November interview with actor-director Sean Penn that he would meet with Obama, suggesting the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay as a venue.

Any possible talks are likely to include involvement of senior Cuban diplomat Jorge Bolanos, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. Bolanos and Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez greeted members of the Congressional Black Caucus when they visited Havana this month.

Although neither side has set conditions to simply talk, Obama insists Cuba make another move before the U.S. takes more action. Castro, meanwhile, demands the U.S. trade embargo on the island be abolished, something Obama has said will not happen without Cuban moves toward democracy.

The U.S. could balk at Castro's offer to free the about 200 political prisoners held on the island, along with their relatives, and send them all to the United States in exchange for five Cubans serving long sentences on espionage charges. On the list are several people convicted of violent acts, including two Salvadorans sentenced to death for Havana hotel bombings that killed an Italian tourist. Cuba currently has a moratorium on the death penalty.

The number of political prisoners held on the island has dropped by a third since Raul Castro assumed power from his ailing elder brother in July 2006. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation then counted 316 prisoners but as of Jan. 30 documented 205 such inmates, including 12 since freed on medical parole.

Another stumbling block toward normalization is the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which forbids U.S. officials from restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba as long as either Fidel or Raul Castro is in charge.