Growing US push for change in Cuba ties, despite Bush

Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, USA (Reuters): Growing ranks of US politicians, from nearly one-fourth of Congress to a presidential candidate, are urging a review of US policy shunning Cuba, challenging President George W. Bush’s view that now is not the time.

The policy has been unpopular for years among some US analysts, who say Fidel Castro’s resignation offers a chance to reconsider a hard-line approach that has kept Washington out of Cuba while most of the world is engaged there.

“It’s an embargo on American influence, is what it is,” said Cuba expert Philip Peters.

“How does it make any sense? We talk to North Korea, we have relations with China, but we won’t talk to Cuba,” said Wayne Smith, a former US diplomat who was chief of mission at the US interests section in Havana from 1979 to 1982.

Since Castro stepped aside and his brother Raul became Cuban president last month, 24 US senators and 104 members of the House of Representatives have signed letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seeking a fresh look at Washington’s restrictions on trade and travel to the Caribbean island.

Cuba policy has also become an issue in the presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Barack Obama declared that as president he’d be willing to talk with Raul — an idea quickly denounced by Bush, whose term ends in January.

“I’m not suggesting there’s never a time to talk, but I’m suggesting now is not the time,” Bush said last week.

Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961, two years after Castro seized power and made Cuba a Soviet ally. Communications were restored with the opening of low-level missions called interest sections in the late 1970s, but a strict sanctions regime remains in place.

Bush, who tightened the embargo and travel restrictions, rejects easing them without a transition to democracy.

Obama’s comment about meeting Raul was also criticized by his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Republican presidential front-runner John McCain.

But US lawmakers’ letters in Rice’s in-tray show Obama is not alone in his thinking. They do not predict great reforms under Raul Castro, but say existing US policy has not advanced democracy on the island.

“Our current policy of isolation and estrangement has failed,” said the missive from 17 Democratic and seven Republican senators. The Democrats included Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Banking Chairman Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

“Cuba’s political system is stable after five decades of American efforts to force change on the island,” they said.

The House letter to Rice said “our policy leaves us without influence at this critical moment.”

While Americans are restricted from trading with Cuba, other countries “make billions of dollars in economic investments on the island,” the congressman noted.

Those investments could multiply if exploration activities turn up significant amounts of offshore oil, said Cuba expert Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs,

“If that comes through, it will make a mockery of the US embargo, Cuba’s economy will be so strong,” he said.

Analysts who favor a policy shift said Washington could start with small steps.

“First get some contacts going at the diplomatic level,” suggested Peters, of the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization in Arlington, Virginia.

“Talk about some bilateral issues, like migration, drug interdiction, and protecting the environment. … Work from there, to broader dialogue on human rights,” he said.

Smith, who directs the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy, said Washington should ease controls on family and academic travel, one reason Cuban-Americans are no longer monolithic in backing US policy.

“They don’t care about the embargo. But tell them they can’t travel to see family, they do care about that,” he said.

Change may come slowly but there is no reason to think it cannot happen, Birns said.

“After all, the foes of the United States in World War II became its closest allies. To think that history has stopped, and Cuban-US relations are unmentionable, is ridiculous.”