Friday, November 7, 2008

Miami Expects Small Obama Steps

Smaller steps will come first in Obama's policy on Cuba

Published: Friday, November 7, 2008 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 at 12:36 a.m.
Sarasota Herald Tribune

MIAMI - Campaigning before Cuban-Americans here last spring, Sen. Barack Obama promised that if elected he would immediately lift Bush administration restrictions on their travel back to the communist island and on the amount of money they can send home to relatives.

Sen. Barack Obama, at a Cuban Independence Day celebration in Miami last May, tells the Cuban American National Foundation that wants to pursue direct diplomacy with Cuba and Latin America.

The president-elect is widely expected by Cuba specialists to make good on that promise, but it is unlikely he will quickly move to end or ease this country's four-decade embargo that severely restricts trade and tourism with Cuba.

Much will depend on whether Cuba responds positively to the Obama administration by releasing political prisoners, improving its human rights record or moving toward a market economy, said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor.

"If Cuba makes some sort of gesture toward the United States, it could begin a diplomatic process," Moreno said.

President Bush has taken a hard line toward Cuba, imposing tough restrictions on travel and remittances in 2004, hoping to hurt the Castro government by choking off a major source of dollars.

Cubans in the U.S. can visit the island only once every three years and can send only quarterly remittances of up to $300 per household to immediate family members. Previously, they could visit once a year and send up to $3,000. The administration also tightened restrictions on travel for educational and religious groups and strengthened enforcement against travelers and businesses that subvert the embargo.

Obama has said he is open to a dialogue with Cuban President Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, two years ago. He has also said he is open to diplomacy if there were an opportunity to advance U.S. interests and the cause of freedom for Cubans and that his administration would boost economic aid to the region and work with other countries on drug trafficking and alternative energy.

Some exile groups are optimistic that Obama's regional approach to diplomacy would work.

Individual Americans sharing resources and information and networking with their Cuban counterparts would help foster democratic change on the island better than cutting off their access to friends, family and money, said Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, a nonpartisan organization of business and civic leaders who favor opening relations with Cuba.

"It's going to be more proactive," said Francisco Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Fund, which hosted an Obama campaign stop in May. "The policy of the Bush administration has been a wait-and-see policy in which for eight years they've been waiting and praying for the conversion of Fidel and Raul Castro to democratic leadership."

In winning Florida, Obama prevailed even in counties that re-elected three Republican Cuban-Americans known in Congress for staunchly defending hard-line policies against Cuba -- Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.

John F. Kennedy: Shortly after taking office in 1961, he allowed the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion that attempted to
overthrow Fidel Castro's fledgling government. It failed after Kennedy blocked airstrikes that would have supported the invading exiles, earning
the Democratic Party undying hatred among some Cuban-Americans. In 1962 he
imposed the economic embargo against the island that remains today. Later that year, the world came close to war when the Soviet Union placed nuclear
missiles on Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended two weeks later with the Soviets agreeing to remove the missiles for a U.S. pledge not to invade the island.

Jimmy Carter: He tried to improve relations with Cuba in
the 1970s, opening a diplomatic mission in Havana and allowing Cuban one in Washington. But Castro undercut Carter's 1980 re-election bid by announcing
that any Cuban who wanted to leave could, sparking the Mariel boatlift. About 125,000 Cubans, including some criminals and mental patients, fled to
the U.S., creating a refugee crisis.

Bill Clinton: He instituted the current "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay but repatriates most interdicted at sea. He also returned to Cuba 6-year-old
Elian Gonzalez, rescued after his mother died when their boat sank as they tried to reach Florida. Elian was placed with relatives in Miami, but his
father -- and the Castro government -- wanted him back. Clinton used armed federal agents to seize him from the relatives' home and return him.

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