Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Cuba, US try talking, but face many obstacles

    Cuba, US try talking, but face many obstacles
    By PAUL HAVEN, Associated Press
    Updated 11:31 pm, Thursday, June 20, 2013

    HAVANA (AP) — They’ve hardly become allies, but Cuba and the U.S. have
    taken some baby steps toward rapprochement in recent weeks that have
    people on this island and in Washington wondering if a breakthrough in
    relations could be just over the horizon.

    Skeptics caution that the Cold War enemies have been here many times
    before, only to fall back into old recriminations. But there are signs
    that views might be shifting on both sides of the Florida Straits.

    In the past week, the two countries have held talks on resuming direct
    mail service, and announced a July 17 sit-down on migration issues. In
    May, a U.S. federal judge allowed a convicted Cuban intelligence agent
    to return to the island. This month, Cuba informed the family of jailed
    U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross that it would let an American
    doctor examine him, though the visit has apparently not yet happened.
    Castro has also ushered in a series of economic and social changes,
    including making it easier for Cubans to travel off the island.

    Under the radar, diplomats on both sides describe a sea change in the
    tone of their dealings.

    Only last year, Cuban state television was broadcasting grainy footage
    of American diplomats meeting with dissidents on Havana streets and
    publically accusing them of being CIA front-men. Today, U.S. diplomats
    in Havana and Cuban Foreign Ministry officials have easy contact, even
    sharing home phone numbers.

    Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for North American affairs, recently
    traveled to Washington and met twice with State Department officials — a
    visit that came right before the announcements of resumptions in the two
    sets of bilateral talks that had been suspended for more than two years.
    Washington has also granted visas to prominent Cuban officials,
    including the daughter of Cuba’s president.

    “These recent steps indicate a desire on both sides to try to move
    forward, but also a recognition on both sides of just how difficult it
    is to make real progress,” said Robert Pastor, a professor of
    international relations at American University and former national
    security adviser on Latin America during the Carter administration.
    “These are tiny, incremental gains, and the prospects of going backwards
    are equally high.”

    Among the things that have changed, John Kerry has taken over as U.S.
    secretary of state after being an outspoken critic of Washington’s
    policy on Cuba while in the Senate. President Barack Obama no longer has
    re-election concerns while dealing with the Cuban-American electorate in
    Florida, where there are also indications of a warming attitude to
    negotiating with Cuba.

    Cuban President Raul Castro, meanwhile, is striving to overhaul the
    island’s Marxist economy with a dose of limited free-market capitalism
    and may feel a need for more open relations with the U.S. While direct
    American investment is still barred on the island, a rise in visits and
    money transfers by Cuban-Americans since Obama relaxed restrictions has
    been a boon for Cuba’s cash-starved economy. Under the table,
    Cuban-Americans are also helping relatives on the island start private
    businesses and refurbish homes bought under Castro’s limited free-market

    Several prominent Cuban dissidents have been allowed to travel recently
    due to Castro’s changes. The trips have been applauded by Washington,
    and also may have lessened Havana’s worries about the threat posed by

    Likewise, a U.S. federal judge’s decision to allow Cuban spy Rene
    Gonzalez to return home was met with only muted criticism inside the
    United States, perhaps emboldening U.S. diplomats to seek further
    openings with Cuba.

    To be sure, there is still far more that separates the long-time
    antagonists than unites them.

    The State Department has kept Cuba on a list of state sponsors of
    terrorism and another that calls into question Havana’s commitment to
    fighting human trafficking. The Obama administration continues to demand
    democratic change on an island ruled for more than a half century by
    Castro and his brother Fidel.

    For its part, Cuba continues to denounce Washington’s 51-year-old
    economic embargo.

    And then there is Gross, the 64-year-old Maryland native who was
    arrested in 2009 and is serving a 15-year jail sentence for bringing
    communications equipment to the island illegally. His case has scuttled
    efforts at engagement in the past, and could do so again, U.S. officials
    say privately. Cuba has indicated it wants to trade Gross for four Cuban
    agents serving long jail terms in the United States, something
    Washington has said it won’t consider.

    Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College in
    New York who helped organize a recent U.S. tour by Cuban dissident
    blogger Yoani Sanchez, said the Obama administration is too concerned
    with upsetting Cuban-American politicians and has missed opportunities
    to engage with Cuba at a crucial time in its history.

    “I think that a lot more would have to happen for this to amount to
    momentum leading to any kind of major diplomatic breakthrough,” he said.
    “Obama should be bolder and more audacious.”

    Even these limited moves have sparked fierce criticism by those long
    opposed to engagement. Cuban-American congressman Mario Diaz Balart, a
    Florida Republican, called the recent overtures “disturbing.”

    “Rather than attempting to legitimize the Cuban people’s oppressors, the
    administration should demand that the regime stop harboring fugitives
    from U.S. justice, release all political prisoners and American
    humanitarian aid worker Alan Gross, end the brutal, escalating
    repression against the Cuban people, and respect basic human rights,” he

    Another Cuban-American politician from Florida, Rep. Ileana
    Ros-Lehtinen, scolded Obama for seeking “dialogue with the dictatorship.”

    Despite that rhetoric, many experts think Obama would face less
    political fallout at home if he chose engagement because younger
    Cuban-Americans seem more open to improved ties than those who fled
    immediately after the 1959 revolution.

    Of 10 Cuban-Americans interview by The Associated Press on Thursday at
    the popular Miami restaurant Versailles, a de facto headquarters of the
    exile community, only two said they were opposed to the U.S. holding
    migration talks. Several said they hoped for much more movement.

    Jose Gonzalez, 55, a shipping industry supervisor who was born in Cuba
    and came to the U.S. at age 12, said he now favors an end to the embargo
    and the resumption of formal diplomatic ties. “There was a reason that
    existed but it doesn’t anymore,” he said.

    Santiago Portal, a 65-year-old engineer who moved to the U.S. 45 years
    ago, said more dialogue would be good. “The more exchange of all types
    the closer Cuba will be to democracy,” he said.

    Those opinions dovetail with a 2011 poll by Florida International
    University of 648 randomly selected Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County
    that said 58 percent favored re-establishing diplomatic relations with
    Cuba. That was a considerable increase from a survey in 1993, when 80
    percent of people polled said they did not support trade or diplomatic
    relations with Cuba.

    “In general, there is an open attitude, certainly toward re-establishing
    diplomatic relations,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research
    Institute at Florida International University. “Short of perhaps lifting
    the embargo … there seems to be increasing support for some sort of
    understanding with the Cuban government.”


    Associated Press writers Christine Armario in Miami and Matthew Lee in
    Washington contributed to this report.


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