Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    US, Cuba seek improved relations but stumbling blocks remain

    Posted on Wednesday, 09.28.11

    US, Cuba seek improved relations but stumbling blocks remain

    President Barack Obama says Cuba must first respect and
    follow through on releasing political prisoners before relations could

    The and Cuba say they're interested in improving frosty
    relations but both countries have stopped short of the steps the other
    deems necessary to put the relationship on a better track.

    "What we've tried to do is send a signal that we are open to a new
    relationship with Cuba,'' President Barack Obama said Wednesday during
    an online forum on Hispanic issues.

    Earlier this week, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly,
    Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said Cuba wanted to "reiterate
    the proposal of beginning a dialogue aimed at solving bilateral
    problems, including humanitarian issues, as well as the offer of
    negotiating several cooperation agreements to fight drug-trafficking,
    terrorism, human smuggling, to prevent natural disasters and protect the
    environment, even in the event of oil spills such as the one that
    occurred at the British Petroleum platform in the Gulf of Mexico.''

    But there are big caveats on both sides.

    Obama said the United States is open to a new relationship "if the Cuban
    government starts taking the proper steps to open up its own country
    and… provide the space and respect for human rights that would allow
    the Cuban people to determine their own destiny.''

    For the Cubans, the U.S. trade against the island and the
    release of the "Cuban Five,'' a group of Cuban agents convicted of
    spying in the United States, are the sticking points.

    Despite exceptions to the embargo that allow the export of U.S.
    agricultural products, foodstuffs and some other products and the Obama
    administration's shift that allows most Cuban-Americans to to the
    island at will, Rodríguez valued the negative impact of the
    five-decades-old embargo at $975 billion. In his U.N. remarks Monday,
    Rodríguez said he was calculating that value according to present world
    gold prices, which have been at historically high levels this year.

    Although Rodríguez mentioned changes that have been undertaken in Cuba
    to make its and socialism more effective, Obama said "so far at
    least what we haven't seen is the kind of genuine spirit of
    transformation inside of Cuba that would justify us eliminating the

    The president mentioned steps he has taken — allowing more remittances
    "to create an economic space for [people] to prosper'' and allowing
    Cuban-Americans to travel to the island more frequently — that "send a
    signal that we're prepared to show flexibility.'' But he said he was
    still waiting for a signal back from Cuba "that it is following through
    on releasing political prisoners, or providing people basic human rights.''

    Rodríguez, meanwhile, called on Obama to set the "Cuban Five'' free "as
    an act of justice or a humanitarian gesture.''

    During an address to the U.N. committee on counter-terrorism Wednesday,
    Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno reiterated the call for
    the release of the five, who were seeking information on U.S.-based,
    anti-Cuban groups.

    "The things that each side is seeking are unlikely to happen,'' said
    Phil Peters, a veteran Cuba watcher at the Lexington Institute. "Now
    that we're in the campaign season, my belief is that absent some really
    significant changes in Cuba, the administration is going to let it [Cuba
    policy] sit.''

    Neither Obama nor Rodríguez made mention of the case of jailed American
    Alan , a subcontractor who was convicted of crimes related to his
    distribution of satellite telephone equipment in Cuba and sentenced to
    15 years. But Peters said that although Rodríguez's comments on
    humanitarian issues were "ambiguous,'' it was clear he was talking about

    Earlier this month, the Gross family released a statement in which they
    expressed hope that Gross would be released before the Jewish High Holy
    Days, which began Wednesday evening.

    Special Correspondent Stewart Stogel contributed to this report from the
    United Nations.