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May 26, 2009
Baby steps as U.S. invites Cuba to resume talks

A vendor in Cuba.

About a year before the Iraq War began, I had a chat with a U.S. Coast Guard officer who had been assigned to work with his Cuban counterparts in Havana on drug interdiction, piracy and other maritime issues. Those interchanges were more than useful, the officer said, and such cooperation made a real difference in U.S. security efforts.

The problem was that he had to work quietly and unnoticed. He heard criticism and reprimands from back home any time the Bush administration got a whiff of “too much” cooperation. Eventually, he got shut down, along with most other contacts between the United States and Cuba.

Last week, the State Department told the Cuban government it wants to resume twice-yearly talks with Cuba about migration issues, which were suspended by George W. Bush in 2004. Presumably, the Coast Guard would have a role there once again, and that is helpful in monitoring safety — potentially even terrorism — on the high seas.

Cuban officials quoted by the Miami Herald were enthusiastic:

A spokesman at the interests section [Cuba’s diplomatic representation in Washington], Alberto González, said Cuba ‘is always in the best position to sit at the table and talk about any kind of topic with the U.S., including immigration…It’s important for us, it’s important for the United States.

Timing is everything. President Obama announced a series of concessions earlier this year, just before attending the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad. In that case, he rolled back Bush administration restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban exiles in the United States to the island. He also authorized new communications licensing measures with Cuba.

This time, the decision on migration precedes a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the 39th General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Honduras on June 2 and 3. In both cases, the changes look like they were aimed at defusing criticism of U.S. policy on Cuba. Many world leaders — almost all in this hemisphere — are urging Obama to drop the half-century old Cuban trade embargo.

A majority of Americans — even a majority of Cuban Americans polled in Miami — support an end to the embargo. A small group of politicians in the United States loudly protest any changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, demanding democratic reforms in Cuba that are unlikely to come any time soon.

The latest changes take U.S.-Cuban relations basically back to where they were when the Bush administration took office. But there’s no sign that Obama will drop the trade embargo altogether any time soon.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paul Keller under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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