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    Cuba, US are warily, slowly improving relations

    Cuba, US are warily, slowly improving relations

    By Bryan Bender | GLOBE STAFF APRIL 20, 2014

    HAVANA — The imposing, seven-story structure with darkened windows sits

    just across from the Malecon, or sea wall, central Havana's communal

    hangout. It is unadorned, flying no flags, offering few signs that

    germinating inside are seeds of a better relationship between official


    The United States cut off relations and imposed a trade embargo with

    communist Cuba more than half a century ago. But at the so-called US

    Interests Section in Havana, 50 US diplomats and 300 locally hired

    Cubans are quietly working on a range of common challenges.

    The two governments are cooperating to combat human trafficking, improve

    airline security, and conduct search and rescue operations. They are

    working on joint efforts to improve public health and guard against

    environmental degradation. And "working-level" discussions are under way

    to do more, officials say.


    Ideas: Cuba, you owe us $7 billion

    The Drug Enforcement Agency could soon be sending agents to work with

    Cuban counterparts to track South American cartels, and the United

    States has proposed reestablishing direct mail delivery between the


    The behind-the-scenes work continues despite the recent controversy over

    a covert US effort to provide Cubans access to a Twitter-like social


    Another thorny disagreement is over the fate of Alan Gross, a US State

    Department contractor who has been jailed in Cuba for four years,

    accused of being a spy. Cuban officials insist they want something in

    return; namely, three Cubans convicted in the United States on charges

    that they were intelligence agents.

    "There is a big over-arching political cleft. But we are doing a number

    of things that have been politically blessed by both sides," said a

    senior US diplomat who works at the diplomatic post.

    The diplomat — who requested anonymity to speak, in compliance with

    State Department rules — expressed frustration that interaction between

    the two governments at higher levels is still officially prohibited.

    The Obama administration, under pressure from politically powerful

    Cuban-Americans in South Florida and their supporters in Congress,

    insists that relations can be restored only when Cubans win "fundamental

    human rights and the ability to freely determine their own political


    Cuba's leaders, meanwhile, decry continuing US efforts to destabilize

    their one-party system.

    But a recent visit to this island just 90 miles from Florida, and

    interviews with Cuban and American officials, revealed a slow but

    unmistakable thaw on both sides of the Florida Straits. They are

    realistic about the snail's pace of change, while describing pent-up

    demand for better economic opportunities.

    Nowhere is that more evident than at the US Interests Section, housed in

    the former US Embassy that was completed just before the Cuban

    Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro, along with his brother Raul, took


    Each day, up to 800 Cubans line up seeking various services such as

    licenses for cultural exchanges, passport services, and other travel

    documents. That compares with about 100 per day last year, according to

    US diplomats.

    US residents are now the second largest group of foreign travelers to

    Cuba each year, behind Canada, including at least half a million

    Cuban-Americans last year, who are now allowed to freely travel here

    under relaxed rules instituted in 2009. Another 100,000 Americans

    visited as part of educational and cultural exchanges approved by the US

    State Department.

    According to a new report by the Havana Consulting Group, more than

    173,000 US residents visited the island just between January and March

    of this year.

    Meanwhile, studies find that money and goods pumped directly into the

    Cuban economy by Cuban-Americans — as much as $5 billion in 2012 — now

    outstrip the country's four major sectors, including tourism as well as

    nickel, pharmaceutical, and sugar exports. That is having a major impact

    on a population of just 11 million people, most of whom barely eke out

    an existence in the island's centrally controlled economy.

    Cuban officials, who agreed to speak to a reporter only if they were not

    named, denied the common view among Cubans that the government is

    fearful of renewed ties with its neighbor to the north.

    "We can defend what we have. We are not afraid," said a senior official

    at Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We have spent 50 years preparing

    the people for anything."

    The gradual thaw in relations provides some hope for many average

    Cubans. The country's economic anemia — the average Cuban earns roughly

    $17 a month — is evident in daily life, from a crumbling infrastructure

    that has seen little investment since the 1950s, to shortages of staples

    such as eggs and meat, which for many Cubans are still rationed.

    Darien Garcia Arco, 26, an electrical engineer who works for the

    government, earns the equivalent of about $70 a month. That is more than

    most Cubans, he points out, allowing him to have his own apartment, a

    rarity for someone his age.

    "There have been changes. Now you can buy and sell in a way that you

    couldn't before," Arco said at a small social gathering in a dilapidated

    high-rise (which, like most buildings, still has a Committee for the

    Defense of the Revolution post on its ground floor, a mainstay of Cuba's

    surviving police state apparatus).

    "Things are changing but they should have changed years ago,'' Arco

    said. "They are still not being felt widely."

    The older generation, which appears most committed to the socialist

    model spearheaded by the Castro brothers, also openly expresses a desire

    for greater opportunity. Maria Cirules, who fought with some of the

    leading Marxists who took power in 1959 and is now in her 70s, recounted

    some of the hard-won achievements of Cuba's socialist political system:

    Health care for all. Near-total literacy. No starvation.

    "That is a conquest for us," she proudly declared.

    Yet when asked what her late comrade, socialist visionary Ernesto Che

    Guevara, might think of modern Cuba's economic situation, she was just

    as adamant.

    "He wouldn't like it," she said. "He was very exacting."

    There have been a series of reforms instituted since Raul Castro took

    over as president in 2009 from his ailing brother, who ruled for nearly

    50 years.

    Dozens of private restaurants, known as casa particulares, have appeared

    in the past few years, usually located in private homes or apartments,

    an easily visible sign that the government is allowing more of a

    free-market economy to emerge. A few state enterprises have also been

    turned into cooperatives.

    The Cuban government has recently welcomed some foreign investment,

    including a port project and industrial zone underway on the western

    part of the island that is financed by Brazilian investors. Also, the

    parliament is considering a broader foreign investment law.

    Most striking to longtime observers was the announcement last year that

    Cubans, who have largely been prisoners in their own country, can apply

    to travel out of the country. There is also a small but vibrant

    blogosphere emerging on the government-controlled Internet, including

    some commentators who are openly critical of the government.

    One US official who has had a unique viewpoint into the changes is

    Representative James P. McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who has long

    advocated for normalizing relations.

    "It is difficult but it is not oppressive," McGovern, visiting Cuba at

    the same time as a Globe reporter, said of the political atmosphere

    here. "It is not to minimize the human rights challenges, but there have

    been changes here that have resulted in more political space."

    McGovern, who has traveled here more than a dozen times since his first

    trip in 1979, nevertheless believes the Obama administration, acting

    independently, can do far more to encourage change here, and he has

    taken his case directly to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, his former

    Bay State congressional colleague.

    "I firmly believe that now is the time to take more significant steps

    that address our relationship with Cuba," he said.

    Among the steps McGovern and his allies in Congress are advocating is

    permitting US firms to offer goods and services to the privately run

    businesses and cooperatives and increasing the number of Americans who

    can apply for a license to travel to Cuba for educational and cultural


    Another plea falls directly under Kerry's purview: removing Cuba from

    the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would

    clear some of the legal impediments to greater diplomatic engagement.

    ("Nobody can explain to me why they are on the terrorist list," McGovern


    The State Department says it has no plans to remove Cuba from the list.

    But a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs said that

    such sanctions against Cuba are "only one aspect of US policy."

    "The administration has taken steps to improve conditions for Cuban

    citizens through initiatives aimed at increasing the flow of

    information, resources, and humanitarian relief," said Angela M.

    Cervetti. "We will continue to think creatively about appropriate policy

    changes that will enhance the Cuban people's access to human rights and

    fundamental freedoms, and their ability to freely determine their own


    She also said that Gross's continued detention "impedes our ability to

    establish a more constructive relationship with Cuba on matters

    affecting both countries."

    For longtime Cuban officials like Gladys Rodriquez, there remains a deep

    sense that the road to normalization will require more struggle.

    "I will admit that I still believe the day the United States will lift

    the blockade or embargo is far away," said Rodriquez, an official at

    Cuba's National Council of Heritage.

    She has worked for more than a decade with Boston-based Finca Vagia

    Foundation to restore the Cuban legacy of American novelist Ernest

    Hemingway, a project McGovern helped launch and that, like the broader

    relationship, has suffered from some fits and start.

    "But I do have the conviction that sooner or later, the process we are

    all waiting for shall take place and our two countries will have normal

    relations," she said.

    Bryan Bender can be reached at Follow him on Twitter


    Source: Cuba and United States are warily, slowly thawing relations –

    Nation – The Boston Globe –