It’s interesting to hear — but not very significant — that the United States under President Obama has turned off the useless news ticker that was running in the windows atop the U.S. interest section in Havana. The move is one more in a series of steps that leaves U.S.-Cuban relations still awaiting some major breakthrough after 50 years of hostility.
The news crawl was a vestige of the belligerent and unsuccessful U.S. policy toward Cuba during the administration of George W. Bush. The Bush administration pretended that it was a means of providing unfettered news to the Cuban people, but the streaming headlines did little more than to give the Cuban government a chance to rally support against American policies. At the time, Fidel Castro established a freedom plaza in front of the U.S. diplomatic building –- located along the Malecon, Cuba’s seafront — and big black flags obscured vision of the ticker when people drove past.
While Obama has rolled back a few other Bush era measures — allowing easier transit by Cuban-Americans to the island, and dropping strictures on how much money family members were allowed to send to their relatives on the island — nothing else has changed. The Cuban government, under Fidel’s brother, Raul, has toned down anti-U.S. rhetoric hoping for an eventual opening to U.S. tourism and other measures that could bring big economic changes in Cuba.
When I was in Cuba earlier this year, I didn’t see any indication that Cubans on the street were lacking information about the basics of what is happening in the United States and the world. And those I spoke to were also surprisingly willing– on camera — to criticize the government for not providing enough
employment, food and opportunities for improving their lives. Young and old were as enthusiastic as people around the world about the prospect of a vigorous, open-minded president of the United States, who happened to be a person of color. And they hoped that Obama would break the logjam.
Cubans appear to know the score, and they’re just tired of waiting for changes that will give them more contact with their friends and relatives in the outside world. Fifty years of the U.S. economic embargo has done nothing to incite popular insurrection in Cuba — if that was the goal — and most people in the United States, even a majority of Cuban-Americans, think it’s time for the embargo to go.
Political reality in the United States makes that difficult. Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, is promoting phased-in engagement with Cuba, and an eventual end of economic sanctions. The rationale is that increased contact will put the United States in a better position to promote a shift toward democratic change.
His middle-of-the-road approach clashes with hard-line opponents of the Castro brothers who want no change in relations unless Cuba makes a move first on political freedom. They note that several hundred political prisoners are held in Cuban jails. But the United States is unlikely to have leverage to bring any change under the current stagnant formula.
So Cuba and the United States continue plodding along, dealing with vestiges of failed rhetoric and policies passed. The news sign is off on the U.S. interest section, but there’s no sign in the short term that the Obama administration plans to go much further than that.
– Peter Eisner