(Publisher comments: Original title: Obama to Discuss U.S. Plan For Engagement With Cuba. See my bold text then comments at bottom)
By BOB DAVIS and José DE Córdoba
President Barack Obama plans to tell Latin American leaders later this week that the U.S. is willing to discuss how to improve relations with Havana, but wants Cuba to take steps toward democracy before it is reintegrated into the Western hemisphere’s economic and political institutions.
Cuba is likely to be at the forefront of discussions at the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 34 heads of government that has always excluded Cuba, starting April 17 in Trinidad. Cuba’s main ally, Venezuela, as well as other countries, have said they want to use the summit to press for closer relations between Washington and Havana. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez stopped in Havana on Friday to coordinate pre-summit strategy with Cuban President Raúl Castro and his ailing bother Fidel.
“Why does Cuba continue to be left out of the Summit of the Americas, if Cuba is a friend of Latin American and Caribbean countries?” Mr. Chávez said during a weekly television address last month.
While the U.S. wants the meeting to focus on the global economic recession, Obama administration officials said the president is ready to engage on the Cuba issue if it’s brought up by other leaders. “We won’t duck it,” said an official. The president is likely to ask other summit-goers to press Cuba on issues of democracy, including the release of political prisoners.
The U.S. willingness to engage on Cuba is another indication of a slow, tentative warming of relations between Washington and Havana. The administration is planning soon to lift longstanding restrictions on Cuba, a move that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit families on the island as often as they like and send them unlimited funds.
The White House is also considering whether to remove restrictions that limit travel to Cuba by Americans for non-degree cultural and educational purposes, administration officials said, a category under which many thousands of tourists could qualify. Another possibility is restarting direct talks with Cuba on immigration issues.
It’s unclear how far a rapprochement could go, given sensitive domestic politics in both countries. A significant segment of the 1.5 million Americans with relatives in Cuba are resolutely anti-Castro and oppose easing relations. In Cuba, the government has staked much of its legitimacy for nearly 50 years on casting the U.S. as an enemy and may be unwilling to make significant changes.
The White House won’t approve further steps until it sees how Cuba—and anti-Castro Cuban-Americans—respond to its first moves involving travel and remittances. And Mr. Obama doesn’t intend to call for lifting the trade embargo against Cuba, which would require congressional action.
On the Cuban side, the response has been mixed thus far. A delegation of black U.S. lawmakers was feted recently by Raúl Castro, who arranged for three of them to meet with his brother, who stepped down as president in 2006 after a serious illness. “I said to the president, ‘Seize the moment’ ” to improve relations with the U.S., said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat. “He said, ‘I’m not a lawyer like my big brother, but I get it.’ “
Fidel Castro has praised Mr. Obama’s intelligence and goodwill, while playing down the U.S. president’s ability to change U.S. policy. “We expressed the criteria that objective realities in the United States are more powerful than Obama’s sincere intentions,” he wrote last week on a Cuban government Web site.
The U.S. eased a major controversy with Havana last week when a federal grand jury in El Paso, Texas, indicted an anti-Castro Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, on charges of lying to U.S. authorities about his role in bomb attacks on tourist sites in Cuba in 1997. Officials say the indictment wasn’t part of an evolving Cuba policy, but rather a coincidence of timing. Nonetheless, the move was interpreted by Cuban officials as a change in strategy by the Obama administration, and Mr. Chávez said it represented “good signals” from the U.S. A lawyer for Mr. Posada has said his client is innocent of the charges.
“The U.S. and Cuban governments are testing the water to see what’s possible bilaterally in the context of a hemisphere that is pushing very hard for change,” said Julia Sweig, a Cuba specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Obama plans to tell Western hemisphere leaders the U.S. is willing to discuss how to improve relations with Cuba but with stipulations.
Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger, wondered what would happen to the “Cuba sí, Yankee no!” slogan—which Mr. Castro has used for fifty years to rally Cubans—if the island’s future is to be flooded by U.S. tourists. “What would party militants think if they were told to accept those who until recently they were told to hate?” she wrote in a post last week.
Mr. Obama’s insistence on democratic change may limit any improvement in relations. “My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: libertad,” he said in a campaign speech in Miami last May. He said he was seeking the release of political prisoners, free speech and free elections. Cuba shows no signs of making such changes, and has balked at acting under international pressure.
Moreover, the Cuban government may calculate that the U.S. Congress may liberalize tourism even if Havana doesn’t make the political changes sought by Mr. Obama. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers recently introduced bills to repeal regulations restricting travel to Cuba.
U.S. backers of improved relations are counting on a waning of anti-Castro sentiment in the Cuban-American community. The mixed emotions were on display on Saturday, when a group of Cuban musicians who got visas to the U.S. took the stage for the first time in Miami as the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
“Reconciliation, here we go,” said Juan de Marcos González, a Cuban musician who put together the group. He launched into a timba appropriately called “Reconciliación.” The song’s words said, “Enough of hate, I give you my hand asking from my heart that between Cubans there be reconciliation.” Aside from a couple of yells from the audience of “Fidel Castro should go,” Mr. González got a warm response.