Aug 18th 2010, 18:08 by The Economist online
IT IS far too early to speak of a new dawn in Cuban-American relations. But since Barack Obama became president, he has revived the Florida Straits strategy of Bill Clinton, his Democratic predecessor, which promoted greater “people-to-people” contact between the two countries while bypassing intransigence from Cuba’s government. Shortly after taking office, Mr Obama won passage of legislation that allowed Cuban-Americans to visit the island and to send money there. Now, senior officials in his administration and in the Democratic Party are saying he plans to formalise the further liberalisation of travel restraints between the countries that has taken place since then.
In recent months, the Treasury Department has steadily increased the number of licenses granted to athletes and musicians from the United States for “public performances” in Cuba—one of the exemptions to the travel ban established as part of America’s 1962 trade embargo on the island. Last year, it gave an unspecified “professional research” license to three actors (Robert Duvall, James Caan and Bill Murray), enabling them to visit the country for four days. Similarly, more Cubans are being allowed into the United States than in the past. A group of 12 Cuban actors presented a Spanish-language version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the University of Alabama last year, and Silvio Rodríguez, a legendary revolutionary folk signer, performed in New York in June.
American officials openly expressed frustration that such gestures were not being met with corresponding moves by Cuba. But the island’s governing tandem of Fidel and Raúl Castro (the latter succeeded his older brother as president in 2006) did take such a step last month, when they agreed to free as many as 52 political prisoners, around a third of the total. And Mr Obama now has one specific concession he hopes to extract from the Castros: the release of Alan Gross, an American aid worker, who was detained in Cuba last December for distributing illegal satellite telephones to Jewish dissidents.
In part to secure his release, America is likely to make a public announcement that it is interpreting regulations on travel licenses more loosely, and to allow flights to Cuba to depart from more airports (they are currently limited to Miami, New York and Los Angeles). However, the declaration will probably not be made until next month at the earliest, and may well be delayed until after November’s midterm elections. And for all Mr Obama’s talk of openness and engagement, he is still opposed to lifting the embargo before a semblance of democracy comes to Cuba. A relationship that has been frozen for 50 years, he said in 2009, “won’t thaw overnight.”