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    Renewed relations with Cuba divide US opinion

    Renewed relations with Cuba divide US opinion
    Geoff Dyer

    Difficult call: President Obama talks to President Castro in December

    Barack Obama surprised the world in late December with the announcement
    that he planned to normalise relations with Cuba, bringing to an end
    more than five decades of diplomatic estrangement from the island nation
    90 miles south of Florida.

    In April, he held his first proper meeting with Cuba’s President Raúl
    Castro at a summit in Panama. “The United States will not be imprisoned
    by the past; we are looking to the future,” President Obama said. “I’m
    not interested in battles that started before I was born.”

    But six months after the original announcement, what has emerged is a
    much more patient and cautious opening between the former adversaries.

    The Obama administration is working on two fronts. It is trying to use a
    modest relaxation in business and trade with Cuba to press the
    government into more political reform. At the same time, it hopes to
    wear down resistance in the US Congress to a broader relaxation of the
    nearly 55-year embargo. For US companies keen to jump into a new market,
    it is likely to be a slow process.

    So far, the administration’s policy changes towards Cuba have been
    limited to what is possible through executive orders issued by the

    The White House has made it somewhat easier for Americans to visit Cuba
    and has issued a licence for a ferry service from Florida. Restrictions
    remain, but tourists report there is little attempt by US authorities to
    check whether they qualify for one of the 12 categories of approved
    travel. Another order made it easier for US companies to sell
    telecommunications equipment to Cuba.

    In late May, the administration formally took Cuba off the list of state
    sponsors of terrorism. While largely symbolic in terms of helping US
    companies do business in the country, it is an important step in
    legitimising relations.

    US officials say an agreement is close on opening formal embassies — at
    the moment, the US has an “interests section” in Havana.

    Despite the hype, most restrictions on US companies remain. More
    substantial changes will require Congress to start peeling back the web
    of laws that make up the economic embargo.

    “This is only the door cracking open,” says Peter Kucik, a sanctions
    specialist at the Inle Advisory Group in Washington. “It is the
    beginning of the process.”

    How will Congress respond? One of the most surprising aspects of Mr
    Obama’s policy is how popular it has been. Not only have polls shown
    broad public support for the push to normalise relations with Havana,
    but some have shown a majority of Cuban-Americans in favour of the move.

    In Congress, there has been bipartisan support. On board the plane to
    Havana in December that brought home Alan Gross — a US contractor whose
    release from a Cuban jail after five years was an effective prerequisite
    for the Obama announcement — was Republican senator Jeff Flake.
    Republican presidential hopeful and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)
    answers questions from the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations
    on May 13, 2015 in New York City

    But there is also a bipartisan group of members of Congress and other
    senior figures who are bitterly opposed to any further rapprochement
    with Cuba, including three potential candidates for the Republican
    presidential nomination — senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and former
    Florida governor Jeb Bush.

    In early June, the Floridian Mr Rubio said he would block efforts to
    appoint an ambassador to Cuba if the administration did not first
    introduce far-reaching political reforms and settle billions of dollars
    of legal claims over property nationalised by the government.

    Given such a climate over the idea of sending an ambassador to Havana,
    few analysts are expecting Congress to make any significant changes to
    Cuba sanctions legislation in the near future.

    As a result, the administration is developing a longer-term strategy of
    using modest changes to build a case for relaxing more restrictions. The
    changes to date have been designed to encourage the sorts of private
    entrepreneurship that escape the controls of the state — an oblique way
    of putting pressure on the Cuban government but also of showing critics
    at home the potential for further engagement.

    By making it easier for US companies to export telecoms equipment to
    Cuba, the administration is clearly trying to boost the sort of internet
    access and other communications that might subtly undermine political

    Last month, US-based IDT Corporation announced that it had signed a
    contract with the Cuban telecom company to provide direct phone links
    between the two countries.

    After Mr Rubio used a recent Senate hearing to claim the Cuban
    government would be the main beneficiary of more US tourists, Mr Flake
    brought out his tablet to show off the new operation in Cuba of Airbnb,
    the holiday home rental site. “If you just scroll down, they have now
    more than 2,000 listings in Cuba,” he said. “Virtually all these
    listings are people in their homes.”

    Ted Piccone, an expert on Latin America at the Brookings Institution in
    Washington, says that Airbnb’s Cuban business is a good example of “how
    US companies can do business in Cuba in ways that empower Cuban people”.”

    Source: “Renewed relations with Cuba divide US opinion” –