HAVANA — Raúl Castro says Barack Obama seems like a good guy, and his brother Fidel says no one can doubt his sincerity. The new U.S. president wants to sit down and negotiate, and is in a better position to do so than any other since Eisenhower.
But making up is hard to do. To restore relations and end the U.S. embargo, either Obama would have to drop demands for democracy on the island or Cuba would have to accept them — both unlikely scenarios.
Not since a young Fidel Castro traveled to the United States in 1959 have hopes for U.S.-Cuba relations been higher, nor the obstacles to closer relations fewer. Among the positive signs:
- An ailing Fidel Castro handed the presidency to his brother Raúl in 2006, removing a symbolic hurdle to closer ties.
- Obama didn’t need the anti-Castro vote in Florida, once thought indispensable. In any case, a recent poll indicates most Cuban Americans in the heart of Florida’s exile community want an end to the embargo that bars most U.S.-Cuba trade and travel.
- A stream of Latin American leaders has visited Havana in recent weeks, and the region is beginning to speak with one voice against the U.S. embargo.
- Obama took heat during the campaign for saying he’d sit down with a Castro — and won anyway.
- And the Castros, who covered Havana with images of former President George W. Bush as a bloody-fanged vampire, actually seem to like the new president.
“No one can doubt the sincerity of his words,” Fidel Castro wrote last Thursday evening in an online essay, saying Obama’s “intelligent and noble face” has become “a living symbol of the American dream.”
As for Raúl Castro’s take: “He seems like a good man.”
Obama’s Cuba policy appears clear: He’ll quickly end limits imposed by the Bush administration on the number of trips that Cuban Americans can make to see relatives, and on the amount of money they can send home. He signed an order last Thursday to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which Cubans considered to be an affront to their patrimony — the U.S. naval base was built on land permanently leased from Cuba under terms imposed when American troops occupied the island in 1903.
But Obama said during the presidential campaign that he would keep the embargo in force, using it as a bargaining chip for democratic change in Cuba.
“The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly, and it must lead to elections that are free and fair,” Obama said as he outlined his Latin America policy last May.
Cuban officials recoil at the thought of a U.S. president telling them how to run their country.
“It would cost us our dignity. Under pressure, we won’t do anything,” Miguel Alvarez, senior adviser to the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, told The Associated Press. “That’s very Cuban.”
One problem, says Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, is that there is no high-profile figure in the United States with a background in Cuba to lead the charge for normalization, like war veterans John Kerry and John McCain did for U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
Erikson said it will be hard to overcome the “inertia” of U.S. policy, which for 50 years has been based on the increasingly improbable hope that isolating the island and draining it of foreign capital will weaken the government’s hand and allow an opposition to flourish.
“This despite the fact that almost no one thinks this policy will be successful at its goal: achieving democracy in Cuba,” he said.
Many observers suggest the U.S. could have far more impact by unilaterally ending the embargo and removing the sanctions that Cuba’s government uses to explain away the island’s poverty and other restrictions on what Cubans can say or do. That way, Cubans would be able to judge their rulers on their own merits.
“I don’t see any downside to ending the embargo. The embargo at this point is an anachronism that makes us look foolish,” said Wayne Smith, the former chief of the U.S. mission in Havana.
Ending the embargo would require backing down from entrenched positions that neither side seems ready to abandon. It would also require an act of Congress, since lawmakers wrote key parts of the restrictions into law in 1992 and 1996.
But relations also could be revolutionized if either side takes smaller steps that carry minimal political cost.
Cuba, for example, could free political dissidents from its prisons. Raúl Castro said last month he’d be willing to send them and their families to the United States in exchange for the freedom of five Cubans locked up in U.S. prisons as spies.
The United States could lift restrictions that bar most Americans from traveling to Cuba, sending a million ambassadors of democracy fanning out across the island every year. Cuban officials say they’d happily take in the tourists and the hard currency they would bring to the economy.
“If you remove the travel restrictions, the embargo becomes irrelevant,” a Cuban official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss policy.
While the politicians mull their next moves, ordinary Cubans are infused with a hope the island hasn’t seen in quite some time.
“Everything changed over there today,” Havana resident Roberto Gonzalez marveled as Obama took the oath of office last Tuesday. Gonzalez, 40, mugged for tourist photos with a dachshund wearing an “Obama-Biden” pin, hoping he might make a few dollars in tips.
“I can see the day that Barack Obama will step onto Cuban soil,” he said. “That day isn’t very far off.”
Niko Price is Latin America Editor for The Associated Press and has covered the region since 1997.