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HAVANA, Jul 6 2010 (IPS) - A year and a half ago when democrat Barack Obama became president of the United States, Raul Castro was already president of Cuba. On both sides of the Florida Straits, the winds of renewal seemed to blow, for domestic and international matters, in both style and policy. Both leaders spoke of the need for change. One area thought to be a likely focus was Cuban-American relations. The most optimistic spoke of loosening and even eliminating the embargo, given its failure to achieve its goal of toppling the regime in Havana and its repudiation by the international community. Moreover, the new Cuban president spoke of his openness to dialogue on any issue with the sole condition being respect for the independence and sovereignty of the island.

Obama’s first sixteen months as president have been a trial, consumed by fundamental problems like the economic crisis, his attempt to modify the health care system, and grave political and military problems in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. Even so Cuba has had a place on the agenda, and this period has seen a beneficial drop in tensions and a rollback of the most extreme measures imposed by the Bush administration regarding family visits by Cuban exiles, remittances, and visits by Cuban academics and artists to the US. Things returned more or less to the way they were under Clinton -and stayed there.

In Cuba, meanwhile, there has been movement domestically that, while not as deep as hoped (and needed, above all in finance and the economy, both in real crisis) has brought change to certain areas of life in the country: from numerous personnel shakeups in the power structure to the reduction of social handouts and the elimination of restrictions that kept Cubans from having cell phones or patronising beach resorts on their own island.

The latest and most important shift in the politics of the island, however, was the beginning of a dialogue between the Cuban Catholic church and the government to address (as far as is known) issues as sensitive as suspending the harassment of the “Women in White” -wives of political prisoners- and the status and physical condition of political prisoners (not recognised as such by the government), an area where there have been slow but important first steps.

The death of a prisoner on hunger strike and another similar protest (which has already gone on for four months and seemed headed for a catastrophic and lamentable end) have turned up the heat on Cuban politics, especially in relation to international opinion.

On the other hand, the complex economic situation of the island is evident in the shortages that complicate daily life (especially given the impossibility of meeting the needs of a family with a state salary), the state’s inability to resolve major problems like the housing shortage, the government’s inability to pay debts to foreign suppliers of merchandise, or disasters like the last sugar harvest. Then there are problems like corruption, the extent of which is unclear because it is known only through rumour; together these form a chilling panorama that seems impossible to address with political decisions alone.

The easing of positions by the Cuban government (who would have imagined a few months ago that a march like that of the Women in White would have been allowed, or that steps would have been taken to save the life of a dissident on a hunger strike?) and the entry of the Catholic church into the realm of Cuban politics create a new context for an eventual opening of the continuously-postponed dialogue between the US and Havana.

Thus it would not seem unreasonable to see as another step forward the recent visit to the US of Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega, who, according to the Wall Street Journal, keeps a “low profile” despite -still according to the Journal- rumours of meetings that he had in Washington, including one with Arturo Valenzuela, who heads the Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Though there has been no confirmation of this meeting, it has not been denied either.

Similarly former president Jimmy Carter has asked Obama again to reconsider the issue of the embargo and begin to lift it. Meanwhile a group of 74 Cuban opposition members has called on Obama to allow US citizens to travel freely in Cuba, arguing that the arrival of massive numbers of Americans on the island would cause a domestic destabilisation. In this context, there was progress elsewhere in the form of a law passed by the Agricultural Committee of the US Congress that would allow Americans to visit the island and lift restrictions on agricultural exports to Cuba.

Meanwhile inside Cuba, there are more and more voices close to the government that are calling for an opening of dialogue, oppose the requirement of official permission to travel internationally, and call for a deepening of economic reform, including the introduction of different forms of production and of non-government property, among other things.

Given the current climate and the mix of tensions feeding it, I believe that if there is sufficient political will and realism, on both sides, this might be the moment to take additional steps to improve a political relationship that has festered like a sore. Of course it will not be easy to change course, when so many political and economic interests are involved, and so much resentment, justifications, and wounds. But, as someone has already asked, if this is not possible now, will it be in a future when instead of Obama there is another figure like Bush in the White House? (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.

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