At the 34-nation Summit of the Americas over the weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama promised a new approach to Latin American relations, meeting with such harsh critics of the U.S. as Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Cuba was a hot topic, as Obama recently loosened travel and remittances restrictions for Cuban Americans. “The policy that we’ve had in place for 50 years hasn’t worked the way we want it to. The Cuban people are not free,” Obama said at the close of the summit on Sunday.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner, the former deputy foreign editor of the Washington Post, puts Obama’s position on Cuba in context.
No question about it: President Barack Obama brought his A-game to the Trinidad summit of Western Hemisphere leaders over the weekend and upstaged potential efforts to embarrass and castigate the United States over its 50-year embargo against Cuba.
The president was warm to overtures by Cuban President Raul Castro and held out the possibility for real changes; he also disarmed Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, by sprinting across the dance floor to break the ice. As in Europe, as in Mexico, President Obama also talked about a new beginning and said that the United States has made its share of mistakes.
The question is: How soon will action follow all the words?
Antonio Caño of the Madrid newspaper, El País, saw little more than “handshaking and good intentions.” Even that was an accomplishment, he said, compared to disastrous, confrontational meetings during the Bush era. However, he said, the good intentions “will be erased from memory quickly if no there are no quick, recognizable results.”
President Obama’s position on Cuba has to be viewed in context. So far, he’s done little more than roll back restrictions imposed by George W. Bush that limited the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba or send money to family members. Obama has opened the possibility of licensing telecommunications contacts with Cuba.
In fact, the president hasn’t completely rewound U.S.-Cuban relations to where they had been before the Bush years. It doesn’t take an act of Congress, for example, to quietly resume bilateral talks with Cuba. The president has not reinstated periodic meetings with Cuba as part of a 1995 migration agreement. The meetings, halted by Bush, grew out of decades of periodic chaos caused by Cuban refugees fleeing the island –- sometimes meeting death in the treacherous Florida Straits.
Phillip Brenner, a professor at American University who specializes on Cuban-U.S. relations, told me U.S. overtures so far “will move the two countries towards a normal relationship only a little.”
“Cuban officials rightly view President Obama’s decision as signifying nothing more than fulfillment of a campaign promise to Cuban-Americans.”
He said the U.S. plan on telecommunications with Cuba “was couched in the same language the United States has used for fifty years. They are intended to bring ‘freedom’ to Cubans, which Cuban officials see as code for ‘regime change.’ ”
President Obama has enough problems as he deals with the ongoing economic crisis, and the dire problems of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Certain to face conservative ire, including a vocal minority in Congress, how much Cuban political capital is the president willing to spend?
– Peter Eisner