Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Obama’s Cuba opening hits early obstacles, faces struggle with Congress

    Obama’s Cuba opening hits early obstacles, faces struggle with Congress
    WASHINGTON Sat Jan 3, 2015 2:55pm EST

    (Reuters) – Only two-and-a-half weeks after U.S. President Barack Obama
    announced a historic prisoner exchange and re-establishment of
    long-broken ties with Cuba, his new policy is encountering obstacles
    that threaten to flare up when Congress returns next week.

    Questions surrounding Havana’s human rights record and the promised
    release of Cuban detainees have the potential to inflame anti-Havana
    passions on Capitol Hill, where the House and Senate are expected to
    hold hearings soon after they resume on Tuesday.

    Whether the obstacles amount in the long run to anything more than speed
    bumps on the way to wider detente remains to be seen. But at a minimum,
    they illustrate how benefits from Obama’s ditching of a half-decade of
    U.S. isolation of Cuba won’t come quickly or without rancorous debate.

    Signaling that it will continue to suppress dissent, the government of
    Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday detained more than 50 activists,
    dissident leaders said, to squelch a planned gathering in Havana’s
    Revolution Square. And dissidents reported new detentions on Thursday.

    The crackdown brought sharp condemnation from the U.S. State Department.
    All of those detained had been released by the weekend, dissidents said.

    There is also concern over when 53 people Washington considers political
    prisoners will be released and on what terms. A senior Obama aide said
    at the time of the Dec. 17 announcement that Cuba had agreed to free
    them as part of the deal to restore diplomatic relations and that an
    unspecified number of them were already released. Raul Castro referred
    to Cuba’s freeing of a group of persons the U.S. “has shown interest in”
    as part of his announcement of the wider deal but didn’t mention a number.

    But Cuban dissident groups say they believe that most of them remain in
    some kind of detention. The White House has steadfastly refused to
    release the names of the 53 and has not shared the list with the
    dissident groups.

    A source with knowledge of the agreed prisoner release told Reuters the
    delay stems from lack of a final deal on where the prisoners will go –
    leaving for the United States or Europe, or staying in Cuba. In the past
    the Cuban government has preferred that such prisoners leave the country
    when released. But some are likely to insist on their right to stay in
    Cuba and continue fighting for their political rights.

    The confusion over those releases and the latest dissident round-ups
    have provided ammunition for congressional critics of Obama’s Cuba
    policy. Those lawmakers have said they will seek to slow or block
    improved ties with Havana.

    “The Castro regime’s latest acts of repression against political
    dissidents in Cuba make a mockery of President Obama’s new U.S.-Cuba
    policy,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a potential 2016
    presidential candidate. “The fact that the regime continues to violate
    the human rights of Cubans like this shows that it has even less
    incentive to change its ways” after Obama’s deal with Castro, Rubio said.

    One early legislative fight over Cuba policy could come when Congress
    considers funding for the Department of Homeland Security. The $1.1
    trillion government spending bill passed in mid-December funds DHS only
    until Feb. 27, because conservative Republicans want to gut Obama’s
    executive orders on immigration reforms.

    Congressional aides said they expect lawmakers opposed to the Cuba
    policy to use the DHS funding bill to eliminate any funding for Obama’s
    Cuba plans.


    Such moves will underscore the barriers to change.

    It may be some time before people in Cuba as well as U.S. businesses and
    others reap opportunities from Obama’s new policy, said Arturo
    Valenzuela, the State Department’s top official for Latin America in
    Obama’s first term.

    “It’s clear to me that what the Cubans want is perestroika, but
    they don’t particularly want glasnost,” said Valenzuela, now with the
    Covington & Burling law firm.

    ‘Perestroika’ was former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s
    ultimately failed effort to reform and rebuild the Communist Party.
    ‘Glasnost’ was his move to make the USSR a more open society.

    “It’s too early really to tell how this is going to work itself
    through, and it’s probably going to take longer than some people maybe
    expect,” Valenzuela said.

    In unveiling the opening to Cuba on Dec. 17, Obama acknowledged, “I
    do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a
    transformation of Cuban society overnight.”

    The source familiar with the prisoner release deal, who spoke on
    condition of anonymity, said the White House was eager to announce the
    diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba in December, before opposition
    Republicans assume control of both chambers of Congress next week. U.S.
    officials said their timetable was driven by the deteriorating health of
    USAID contractor Alan Gross, freed from a Cuban prison as part of the deal.

    Support for isolating Cuba has ebbed in Congress in recent years.
    But some U.S. lawmakers of both parties vehemently oppose normalizing

    Many legal experts, and the White House, say Obama has broad
    executive powers to ease restrictions on commerce, transportation and
    banking, as well as open a U.S. Embassy in Havana – even if Congress

    (Writing by Warren Strobel. Additional reporting by David Adams in
    Miami, Daniel Trotta in Havana and Lesley Wroughton in Washington.;
    Editing by Marilyn Thompson and Martin Howell)

    Source: Obama’s Cuba opening hits early obstacles, faces struggle with
    Congress | Reuters –