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    Obama unlikely to make new gestures to Cuba without action from Havana

    Posted on Wednesday, 03.23.11

    Obama unlikely to make new gestures to Cuba without action from
    By Andres By Oppenheimer

    SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — For a man who prides himself on having
    taken "unprecedented steps" to try to ease five-decade-old U.S. tensions
    with Cuba, President Barack Obama did not look eager to make new
    gestures toward the Cuban military regime when I interviewed him Tuesday.

    The ball is in your court, he seemed to be telling Cuba.

    Obama, who talked extensively about issues ranging from tensions with
    and Argentina to the pending U.S. free trade deals with Panama
    and Colombia, said he has made some of the most significant changes in
    U.S. policy to Cuba in decades but the Cuban leadership has not
    responded in kind.

    "We have expanded remittances, we expanded , we have sent a strong
    signal to the Cuban people," Obama said. "The Cuban government made some
    gestures about releasing political prisoners and starting some
    market-based economies with small business opportunities. (But) we
    haven't seen as much follow-through as we would like."

    Obama said that Cuban authorities must take some "meaningful actions,"
    but was not specific when I asked what would be the minimum measures
    Cuba should take to improve bilateral ties.

    Obama did not mention the case of , the U.S. contractor who
    was sentenced to 15 years in this month for taking telephone
    equipment to Cuba, but other U.S. officials have asked for his immediate
    release in recent days.

    On the pending U.S. free trade deals with Colombia and Panama, I asked
    Obama whether he sees a better than 50 percent chance that he will send
    them to Congress for a vote this year.

    "I won't put a number on it, but I am very interested in getting those
    deals done," he said.

    But this year? I insisted. Republicans are accusing Obama of dragging
    his feet on both deals because of resistance from U.S. labor unions
    whose support Obama will need to be re-elected next year.

    "I am sending my team to Colombia and Panama to see how we can quickly
    resolve any final differences before we put them to Congress," he said.

    This year?, I insisted once again.

    "Whenever you put a timetable, people complain if it happens even a week
    after your deadline, so I try to avoid those numbers," he said.

    My translation: Obama is not ready to spend much political capital on
    the two pending free trade deals with Latin America, at least not yet.
    And if he doesn't do it this year, it's not likely to happen during an
    election year in 2012.

    On reports that Venezuela is secretly helping Iran obtain uranium in
    violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at
    stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program, I asked Obama whether he is
    concerned about this issue, and to what extent.

    "We take non-proliferation very seriously," Obama said. "I wouldn't make
    categorical statements to you about these issues, but we are concerned
    that international law, international resolutions, are observed, and we
    want to make sure that they are observed."

    My translation: Obama has been told by his top aides that recent
    allegations by top Republicans in Congress that Venezuela actively is
    helping Iran circumvent U.N. sanctions for its nuclear program are
    politically-motivated, and that there is no smoking gun yet tying
    Venezuela to Iran's nuclear weapons program.

    On the recent U.S. diplomatic row with Argentina over the South American
    government's decision to seize equipment from a U.S. Air Force cargo
    plane that had landed there for a joint exercise, I asked Obama whether
    his White House spokesman had over-reacted when he described the
    incident as "serious," and whether the whole issue has already been solved.

    "No," Obama responded. "It is serious in the sense that Argentina
    historically has been a friend and a partner of the . They
    have some of our communications equipment. There is no reason not to
    return it. And next time I see President (Cristina Fernández de)
    Kirchner, I will mention, 'Can we get our equipment back?' But it's not
    going to be a defining aspect of the U.S.-Argentine relationship."

    My translation: Obama sees the Argentine government's decision to seize
    the U.S. equipment as a electoral propaganda move by Fernández de
    Kirchner's government to capitalize on anti-American sentiment in that
    country in anticipation of this year's presidential elections.

    In my next column, Obama's responses to my questions about his claims
    that he is starting "a new era of partnership" with Latin America, and
    his views about what the United States and Latin America should do to
    improve their levels and become more competitive with
    and other Asian countries.