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“Over to you, Castro Junior?”

13 April , 2009

As the Summit of Americas is about to begin in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama has taken the first few steps towards thawing the icy relations that have defined the last fifty years between Cuba and the USA. Whilst perhaps much lower on Obama’s international agenda than the pressing dilemmas of the Middle East and Pakistan, Cuba sits symbolically on the American doorstep, a gnawing thorn in the side of an America determined to change its outward-looking face. Ignoring the failures of US policy in respect of Cuba would have left Obama open to genuine charges of hypocrisy – lifting the American profile far from home, without literally picking up its foot to notice its neighbour. The pace of change may prove to be faster than many external commentators first expected.


Has the embargo been lifted yet?


The embargo has not yet been lifted, but many of the human obstacles which have marred the quality of life for Cubans are being lowered. In March, Obama signed a government spending bill designed to ease economic restrictions between the two countries, enabling Cuban-Americans to travel to the island once a year and send money back home. Whilst a policy of restriction remains in place, this is at least a notable improvement on Bush’s policy which effectively prevented all but immediate family members travelling to the island for two weeks once in every three years.


Restrictions on medicines and food also are being relaxed, as are the rules on US telecommunications companies who will be permitted to apply for licences to operate in Cuba. Until now, and despite Raul Castro himself lifting internal bans on mobile phones when he came to power fourteen months ago, external communication remain accessible to few rather than many in Cuba; mobile and internet connections outside the capital remain sporadic. Of course, the utility of these communications will depend to a considerable degree on the Cuban government’s next moves to allow such companies to operate freely within its borders, bringing news of the outside world to a country which has spent half a century in isolation. The new relaxed rules also permit Cuban-Americans to send home gift packages containing clothes, personal hygiene items and other basic necessities which are in short supply. Women looking for tampons in Cuba, and men looking for fishing gear are likely immediately to benefit from the new rules.


Significant shift in US policy


Recent reports from Washington have signalled that a significant shift in US policy needed to take place quickly, although a complete reversal of the embargo still seems out of range in the immediate future. In December, a distinguished panel of experts advised the US administration to adopt a policy of critical and constructive engagement with Cuba in order to restore normal bilateral relations between the two states, and to promote democratic governance within Cuba. In October 2008, the UN General Council passed its 17th resolution requiring the US to lift its embargo. Only Israel and Pulau voted with the USA in favour of maintaining this blockade, whilst 185 countries voted against it.  


Obama’s administration said last month that it will not lift the embargo until signs of democracy finally emerge from the Caribbean state. Raul Castro, after his first full year in power, has indicated that he is prepared to negotiate, without any preconditions.


Castro Senior, alive and kicking


Fidel Castro, whose public absence over the last two years has led to an international rumour mill about his ill health, and even his alleged secret death, met with a US Congressional team last week. They described him as healthy, energetic and clear thinking. Always unable to resist the challenge, Castro Senior last week wrote in the state-run Granma newspaper that “the measures of the United States against Cuba, throughout almost half a century, constitute a total failure”. He continued that Cuba has never feared dialogue which, he says, is the only way of procuring peace and friendship. At the fifth Summit of the Americas beginning later this week, where one of the aims is said to be “securing human prosperity”, all eyes will be focusing on what, if any, dialogue between Castro Junior and President Obama  will take place at all. It is high time that both hostile rhetoric, and a juvenile embargo, are brought to a swift end.


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