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POLITICS-US: New Cuba Policy in Sight?

HAVANA, Oct 20 2008 (IPS) - If elected, Democratic candidate Barack Obama could become the first United States president to engage in talks with Cuba after almost five decades of severed relations, but it will all depend on his refraining from trying to “control” a process that involves two sides, say academics from this Caribbean island nation.

Even before his official nomination, the U.S. presidential hopeful had talked of the possibility of pursuing “direct diplomacy” with Havana “without preconditions,” and had promised to put an end to the restrictions imposed by Washington in 2004 on the freedom of Cuban-American families to travel and send remittances to their relatives in Cuba.

“Obama was very clever in setting out his alternative policy, as he brought up two issues that are key to the Cuban-American community (economic and travel sanctions) and declared his willingness to sit down and talk with officials in Havana,” Esteban Morales, a Cuban academic and researcher, said in an interview with IPS.

In Morales’s opinion, the proposal marks a step forward, as it “takes the situation to a fresh starting point by eliminating unpopular restrictions set by the George W. Bush administration and raising the possibility of opening official talks, something which until now was unheard of.” However, on this last point, Obama has made a mistake that “puts Cuba on its guard,” according to Morales.

Speaking in Miami, Florida before the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) – traditionally the most hard-line and influential anti-Castro group -, Obama said during the primary campaign in May that “there will be careful preparation” for such negotiations, and that these would be based on “a clear agenda.”

“As president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people,” he added.

Morales finds this approach “rather arrogant.” “He went as far as to say that the groups that represent Cuban emigrés should be included in these talks, and the way he expressed himself was as if he should be the one to determine when the talks would take place, what issues would be on the agenda and who would participate,” he said.

Morales, a researcher at the University of Havana’s Centre for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU), went on to say that Obama is wrong in wanting to steer the process down the path of U.S.-controlled talks. “This is an issue that must be decided by mutual agreement, and must be negotiated with Cuba,” he said.

He pointed out that Cuban President Raúl Castro has said on more than one occasion that Cuba is willing to negotiate to find a solution to the long-standing bilateral conflict, provided that its “independence” is respected and that discussions be “guided by the principles of equality, reciprocity, non-interference and mutual respect.”

With regard to defining a possible agenda for such talks, Morales said that “the key factor is that the parties cannot come to the negotiating table with preconditions.” “If that is achieved, the rest is just drawing up a smart list of issues mutually agreed on, ranging from the most simple matters to the most complex,” he said.

In Morales’s view, the embargo imposed in the early 1960s, which Obama says he will not lift, is a “political problem” that could be left out of the debate if both countries decide not to discuss it.

In that case, the two nations could begin to regularise economic relations on the basis of the already existing trade flow, which is limited to food imports by Cuba paid up front in cash.

The talks, he says, could then address ways to expand current trade to include other products, the possibility of exporting Cuban goods to the U.S., the negotiation of new terms of trade, and the question of credit, with the aim of facilitating transactions.

In spite of the restrictions in place, since 2001 the U.S. has become a major supplier of foodstuffs to Cuba, which now purchases 35 percent of its food imports from that country.

Morales believes Obama has a firm chance of prevailing over his opponent, Republican Party candidate John McCain, in the Nov. 4 elections. “I’d like to see him win. I think that with Obama in office, the possibilities for change would be richer,” the analyst told IPS.

However, he says it would be “easier” for a Republican to dismantle the current U.S. Cuba policy than for a Democrat.

“Republicans are very pragmatic, more consistent from an ideological point of view. Such decisions would be questioned far less if they came from someone in their ranks than from a Democrat,” he said.

Morales views the nomination of an Afro-American as presidential candidate as an unprecedented decision. “I believe that racism and intolerance have declined in the last 30 or 40 years, but not to the point of disappearing entirely. We still have to see if people in the U.S. are truly prepared to accept a black president. We won’t know until the elections,” he said.

The Cuban government’s opinion of the two U.S. presidential candidates has until now been virtually monopolised by former Cuban President Fidel Castro, for whom Obama “is superior in both intelligence and serenity” to McCain, “one of the worst students in his West Point Academy class.”

In an op ed column published Oct. 12 in the Cuban press, Castro warned that “the United States is marked by profound racism, and millions of whites cannot reconcile their minds with the idea that a black man with his wife and children would move into the White House, which is called just that: White.”

In this sense, “it is by pure miracle that the Democratic candidate has not suffered the same fate as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others who in recent decades dreamt of equality and justice,” Castro said, referring to the assassination of these civil rights activists in the 1960s.

In a previous commentary, Fidel Castro had criticised the Democratic candidate’s foreign policy platform for Cuba, claiming it could be translated into a formula for condemning the country to hunger, with remittances as handouts and visits as propaganda for consumerism and the unsustainable way of life it is based on.

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claudia hernandez-santos