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Obama Must Decide to Soften or Maintain Cuba Policies


One controversial issue President-elect Barack Obama will face after he takes office is whether to change the government's decades-old policies toward Cuba.

Support for the U.S. embargo and other tough measures against Cuba's communist government is declining, including among Cuban-Americans. The sentiment is changing in a community that once was dominated by harsh criticism of Havana.

Former Cuban political prisoners hold a vigil once a week outside a popular Cuban restaurant in Miami. The aim is to highlight the plight of dissidents in Cuba who are being persecuted.

Self-described exiles like these are some of Havana's harshest critics. They also are strong supporters of the U.S. embargo and other tough policies aimed at weakening Cuba's communist government.

Joel Rodriguez who is a supporter of the embargo stated "For the people who support the embargo and will continue supporting, we feel it is necessary. There is no reason to help the Cuban regime."

Cuban Americans - pro and con - say they are aware the embargo has failed to produce democratic change in Havana. Now, some feel it is time for a new approach.

"The policy of isolation and confrontation have been and continue to be massive policy failures," said Carlos Saladrigas, who is with the Cuba Study Group, a research institute in Washington, DC. He points to a recent study by Florida International University. Its shows that, for the first time, more Cuban-Americans oppose the embargo than support it.

Part of the change is due to the growing numbers of young Cuban immigrants in Miami, says sociologist Guillermo Grenier.

Grenier representing the Florida International University stated, "The new arrivals, as you see in the results, have a more conciliatory view, a more realistic view. They do not think change is going to come overnight."

For 17 years, FIU researchers have documented the anger and frustration of Cuban-Americans about Washington's failure to weaken Havana's government.

This year's poll found something different, says Hugh Gladwin who led the survey. "There was a real optimism. The number [of people who] not only said there should be engagement but expressed it in a positive way, like maybe this is time for something new," Gladwin said.

Barack Obama's election has energized those seeking change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. During the campaign, Mr. Obama said he was open to meeting Cuba's leaders and lifting some U.S. restrictions.

Few expect the new president to end the nearly 50-year-old economic embargo, but advocates of reform say Mr. Obama should work to reverse Bush administration policies.

Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy was the top U.S. diplomat in Havana in the early 1980s. He explained, "Lifting the embargo is a very complicated issue. I see Obama moving toward improving relations with Cuba. Lifting restrictions on Cuban American travel, and lifting restrictions on educational travel."

Reversing a 2004 rule that ended teaching exchanges is a top priority for Smith and a group of U.S. academics. Others want restrictions lifted on how often Cuban-Americans can travel to the island and how much money they can send to family members there.

For Cuban-Americans who support tough measures, accepting change may be difficult. But embargo supporters like Ozzy Hernandez remain hopeful. "Fifty years with the same problem, and we have been unable to do anything to liberate Cuba. Maybe Obama can accomplish something finally," he said.

Still at issue is whether and when the Obama administration will address the Cuba question.

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