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Will Obama shift policy on Cuba?

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

The election of Barack Obama has energised those seeking a change in relations between the US and Cuba.

Barack Obama
Mr Obama promised change during the election campaign

And with so many thorny, complex issues awaiting the incoming president, analysts say Cuba might provide Mr Obama with an easy opportunity to bring about the kind of change to America's foreign policy that the world and Latin America in particular are waiting for.

From Russia to Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, "none of these crises will allow President Obama to signal swiftly to the world the kind of changes he proposes in American foreign policy," write Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief-of-staff to Colin Powell, and Patrick Doherty, from the New American Foundation.

"In contrast, US-Cuba policy is low-hanging fruit: though of marginal importance domestically, it could be changed immediately at little cost."

Younger generation

Hopes have been raised by statements made by Barack Obama himself and policies spelled out on his campaign website.

A Cuban man sits in front of a large Cuban flag
Cuban-Americans are eager to help their families in Cuba

A big factor driving the calls for change is the growing number of Cuban-Americans who are eager for more contact with the homeland, want to help their families there improve their living standards and believe this will help bring about change inside Cuba.

Attitudes are especially changing amongst the younger generation, which does not bear the scars of life under Fidel Castro - but some older Cuban-American have also had a change of heart.

Carlos Saladrigas is a 60-year-old Cuban-American from Miami. He is a life-long Republican, but voted for Mr Obama this time round.

Speaking to the BBC earlier this year, he said: "You don't have to be very smart to figure out that after 50 years of trying something that hasn't worked, maybe it's time to try something new."

He said the best way to bring about change inside Cuba was to allow Cuban-Americans to become the agents of change by letting them visit the island.

As the Americas have changed, we have sat on the sideline, offering no compelling vision and creating a vacuum for demagogues to advance an anti-American agenda
Barack Obama

On Mr Obama's campaign website, the section on Cuba states that he will "empower our best ambassadors of freedom by allowing unlimited Cuban-American family travel and remittances to the island".

A quick way to send a signal of change would indeed be for Barack Obama to lift some of the restrictions imposed by President George W Bush in 2004.

Mr Bush limited the number of visits Cuban-Americans were permitted to make to the communist island from one a year down to one every three years.

He also reduced the amount of remittances they could take with them to Cuba from $3,000 to $300.

Embargo

A new report published by the Brookings Institution in Washington makes even further recommendations on Cuba, advising almost total reversal of US policy.

The report, written by prominent policy-makers from the US and Latin America, advocates lifting all restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans and recommends removing Cuba from the State Department's list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

People sit in front of their house in Santiago, Cuba
Rarely before has the potential for change been so tangible

While Mr Obama may not go this far initially, there is little doubt that he will make changes to a policy that has put the US at odds with most of the world.

In October, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution urging the US to lift its trade embargo against Havana, for the 17th year in a row.

Only Israel and Palau joined the US in supporting the embargo, with 185 countries voting against it.

A rapprochement with Cuba would also help improve ties with Latin America.

On his website, Mr Obama states that "George Bush's policy in the Americas has been negligent toward our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the challenges that matter in people's lives, and incapable of advancing our interests in the region".

Fidel (L) and Raul Castro
Economic conditions could force the Castro brothers to adopt reforms

"As the Americas have changed, we have sat on the sideline, offering no compelling vision and creating a vacuum for demagogues to advance an anti-American agenda."

The Bush administration rejects the charge that it has neglected Latin America, pointing out that the president has travelled nine times to the region.

But there is clearly room for improvement, according to Mr Wilkerson and Mr Doherty.

"Our Cuba policy is also an obstacle to striking a new relationship with the nations of Latin America," they write.

"But until Washington ends the extraordinary sanctions that comprise the Cuba embargo, Latin America will remain at arms-length, and the problems in our backyard - Hugo Chavez, drugs, immigration, energy insecurity - will simply fester."

Economic challenge

Supporters of the embargo and the tough policies on Cuba say any rapprochement with Cuba would be a sign of weakness, unilateral concessions to an oppressive regime with nothing in return.

Cuba has welcomed some of Mr Obama's proposals and Raul Castro has offered to free political dissidents in exchange for the release of five convicted Cuban spies in US prisons as a gesture to pave the way for a meeting with the incoming president.

Tourists pass in front of a painting of Fidel Castro and guerrilla leader Camilo Cienfuegos in Havana
Fifty years on, the revolution's legacy is mixed, correspondents say

Mr Obama is unlikely to make such a deal, but Marifeli Perez-Stable, writing in the Miami Herald in December, suggested that it may be possible to exchange the "Five Heroes" (as they are known in Cuba) for US fugitives living in Cuba.

Rarely before has the potential for change been so tangible, in US policy towards Cuba but also in the attitudes inside the island itself.

After a devastating hurricane season, a worldwide economic downturn and a drop in oil prices, which impacts how much support Cuba can get from its oil-rich ally Venezuela, the Castro brothers, both of whom are old, may be more malleable.

Mr Obama is expected to travel to Trinidad and Tobago in April to attend the Summits of the Americas.

There have been calls for him to announce the policy shift towards Cuba ahead of the gathering so that the meeting can be the start of a new era in Washington's ties with Latin America.



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