Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    US-Cuba relations make little progress

    September 25, 2012 3:09 pm

    US-Cuba relations make little progress
    By Marc Frank in Havana

    When Barack Obama won the US presidency in 2008, many believed he would
    make significant progress in Cuban relations, so resolving one of the
    last conflicts of the cold war.

    But four years later, US-Cuba relations remain stuck in much the same
    time warp, and whether Mr Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney
    becomes the next US president, few expect a significant breakthrough –
    although the region's changing ideological landscape could prompt the
    beginnings of a shift.

    Mr Obama lifted all restrictions on Cuban American visits soon after
    taking office, and in December 2010 reversed a Bush Administration ban
    that led to a surge in so-called people-to-people visits, which are for
    educational purposes rather than tourism. But he has also stepped up
    financial sanctions under anti-terrorism laws, and this year issued
    tough new travel guidelines.

    "The US position on Cuba continues to undercut our strategic position in
    the region and a breakthrough would greatly enhance Obama's foreign
    policy legacy through solving a problem far simpler than many other
    global issues," said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow on Latin America at
    the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

    "There is no question that Obama's first term disappointed many when it
    comes to Cuba, but I think it premature to assume this status quo under
    a second term," she added.

    Mr Romney, if he wins, is, meanwhile, expected to tighten travel and
    adopt a more aggressive public stance towards Havana, encouraged by
    powerful Cuban-American legislators in the key electoral state of Florida.

    The two countries' latest, seemingly intractable, conflict is over the
    fates of jailed US contractor Alan Gross and five Cuban intelligence
    agents. Mr Gross was arrested in 2009 for participating in a US project
    to set up an internet platform covertly in Cuba. He is currently serving
    a 15-year sentence.

    The Cuban agents were imprisoned in the US 14 years ago for infiltrating
    exile organisations and military installations in Florida. Following Mr
    Gross' arrest, immigration and mail service talks restarted under Mr
    Obama were again suspended, and US diplomats say there will be no
    progress until Mr Gross is released.

    Another factor limiting improved US-Cuban relations is the conservative
    tide that washed over Washington after the 2010 Congressional elections
    and that brought Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio to office and
    saw another hard-line Cuban American, congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,
    appointed head of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Both lawmakers
    oppose contact with Cuba and are particularly incensed by
    people-to-people exchanges.

    "This is nothing more than tourism?.?.?.?a source of millions of dollars
    in the hands of the Castro government that they use to oppress the Cuban
    people," Mr Rubio charged during congressional hearings last year.

    As many as 400,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2011, with as many as
    70,000 of them not of Cuban heritage. They may have boosted the
    government, but were also important clients for the hundreds of small
    businesses that have opened in Cuba – part of Havana's broad, if
    hesitant, market-oriented reforms.

    Mr Rubio, according to his office, then blocked the administration's
    nominee for undersecretary of state for Latin American affairs, Roberta
    Jacobson, until it agreed in March to roll back the travel programme.
    Tougher new regulations quickly followed.

    "Under the new guidelines, applications often run to more than 100
    pages, compared with just a few when the people-to-people programme
    began, and they are usually sent back for not meeting vague criteria,"
    said Bob Guild, vice-president of Marazul Charters, the oldest US
    company taking people to Cuba.

    Although pro-embargo forces are expected to remain a strong influence in
    Congress even if Mr Obama wins, some advocates of a new Cuba policy hope
    he will use executive privilege to get round them.

    One factor that could change the state of play is if Cuba is taken off
    the list of state sponsors of terrorism – as the US State Department did
    with North Korea in 2008 and Libya in 2006 – for helping broker peace
    talks between the Colombian government and the country's Marxist Farc
    rebels. If the Farc lay down their weapons that could help lead to Mr
    Gross' release, opening the way for further advances.

    "With the peace talks of the Colombian government with the Revolutionary
    Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) under the partial sponsorship of Cuba,
    it will be very difficult to keep Cuba on the terrorism list," Tony
    Zamora, a Miami-based lawyer, anti-embargo activist and Bay of Pigs
    veteran, said. The first round of peace talks is due to begin in Oslo on
    October 8, and continue in Havana.