By GINGER THOMPSON | New York Times
Seizing the momentum from recent meetings with Latin American leaders, the Obama administration is quietly pushing forward with efforts to reopen channels of communication with Cuba, according to White House and State Department officials.
The officials said informal meetings were being planned between the State Department and Cuban diplomats in the United States to determine whether the two governments could open formal talks on a variety of issues, including migration, drug trafficking and other regional security matters.
And the administration is also looking for ways to open channels for more cultural and academic exchanges between Cuba and the United States, the officials said.
The next steps, said a senior administration official, would be meant to “test the waters,” to see whether the United States and Cuba could develop a “serious, civil, open relationship.”
After saying the United States was “ready to talk about a series of issues,” the official added, “This thing with Cuba is going to take a lot of time, and it may not work.”
Officials who discussed the plans did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the efforts.
The details and scope of the administration’s outreach to Cuba are still being worked out, they said. But their comments indicated a departure from the White House’s previous position that it would not make further moves toward engagement until the Castro government reciprocated President Obama’s lifting of restrictions on Cuban-Americans who wished to travel to Cuba or send money to relatives on the island.
Mr. Obama has faced mounting pressure from Latin America and from his supporters in this country to do more to reverse the United States’ 47-year-old trade embargo against the Castro dictatorship. Cuba has become the litmus test by which many Latin American nations measure the United States’ commitment to improving relations with the region.
Polls suggest that there is increasing support among Cuban-Americans for ending the United States’ policy of isolation toward Cuba. And proposals have been made in both houses of Congress that would lift restrictions on travel to Cuba for all Americans.
In an interview, a State Department official described the pressure building for a new policy toward Cuba as a “steamroller” and said that the administration was “trying to drive it, rather than get run over by it.”
The official said any overtures toward Cuba would be made cautiously, allowing Mr. Obama to walk a fine line between those who want to end the embargo and those who see any engagement with Cuba as making concessions to a dictatorship. The official said that the administration also wanted to be careful to make it clear that its openness to engagement with Cuba did not mean the United States would turn a blind eye to the Cuban government’s poor record on human rights.
Experts on Cuba said there were good reasons for Mr. Obama’s caution. Among them is that the president has a full legislative agenda and does not want opposition by anti-Castro conservatives to interfere with more pressing concerns. The experts added that it was almost impossible to predict Havana’s next move and that the Cuban government had a history of shutting the door each time there was any serious move toward improving relations. Indeed, after the recent Latin American summit meeting, Fidel Castro said that Mr. Obama had misinterpreted comments by President Raúl Castro, his brother, that “everything” would be up for discussion.
Carl E. Meacham, who is a senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, and who wrote a report critical of the United States’ embargo, said: “We in Washington have to focus on our own objectives, and not on events in Havana. What we’re doing is threatening to President Castro, and there will be reaction. But we have to keep moving forward.”
The Obama administration has indicated that it would like the Cuban government to stop charging fees on remittances sent to the island, open Cuba to American telecommunications companies and release all political prisoners.
But another State Department official, echoing Mr. Meacham, said the United States would not delay its own efforts while waiting for Havana to make suchmoves.
“I don’t think we want to paint a big red line in the sand to preclude any conversations,” the official said. “We need to begin having conversations.”