In recent congressional hearings, members of U.S. Congress have listened to opposing views about prospects for political change and human rights improvements in Cuba, and the question of whether to further loosen trade restrictions under the four decade-old economic embargo imposed in 1962.
With decisions in April to ease aspects of the U.S. embargo, President Obama left no doubt he would like to see a new relationship develop with Cuba, while keeping the issue of the Castro government's human rights record at the top of an emerging agenda.
How successful the administration's outreach to Havana can be will be determined as U.S. and Cuban officials hold additional exploratory meetings in coming months to determine if formal talks on key bilateral and regional issues can take place.
Walter Bastian, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the Western Hemisphere and International Trade Administration, says easing restrictions on family visits, monetary remittances, and telecommunications investment was aimed at setting relations on a more productive course:
"President Obama indicated at the Summit of the Americas that the U.S. seeks a new beginning in its relations with Cuba. The measures announced on April 13th were intended as a signal to the people of Cuba and to the government of Cuba that the U.S is prepared to pursue policies that will strengthen the ties between the people in our countries and bolster progress toward a free and Democratic Cuba," he said.
Bastian noted that the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened U.S. embargo policy, remains in effect and requires that restrictions continue unless conditions change in Cuba, including formation of a transition government.
Supporters and opponents of further easing the embargo testified about advantages and drawbacks in the process for U.S. businesses, and Washington's efforts to support human rights advocates and political prisoners in Cuba.
"We do not feel that a unilateral ending of what remains of the embargo now will promote greater economic or political freedom in Cuba, or great benefit to American companies," said Ambassador James Cason, President of the Center for a Free Cuba, and a former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Kirby Jones, President of the U.S. Cuba Trade Association, says 47 years of the U.S. embargo failed to achieve any of its original objectives, and he asserts President Obama should neither set preconditions nor put too much weight on pronouncements by Fidel Castro.
"It would be a mistake to take an editorial or a column in Granma and interpret that as being the final word on Cuban government's policy. I think we ought to take them up on their word. I think there is a way to begin in terms of talking about resurrecting the bilateral talks that the previous administration stopped on immigration, drug interdiction and the environment, all to our interest and we ought to begin the process of talking in the same way that [former President] Ronald Reagan in calling the Soviet Union the evil empire, still kept on talking," he said.
Opposing views on engaging Cuba were evident in statements by Congressman Bobby Rush, the Democratic chairman of the Energy and Commerce Trade Subcommittee, and ranking Republican George Radanovich:
RUSH: "All nations in the Americas, except the U.S. have resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba. All of our economic competitors, including China, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Canada and the EU are currently trading with Cuba. Cuba has also made it clear that the same doors are open to the U.S. and our policies should not prevent American companies from doing business with the Cuban people."
RADANOVICH: "As long as the Castros maintain a regime which represses individual freedom, oppresses dissenting political views, and expresses hostility toward religious expressions while at the same time maintaining a state-controlled economy to the benefit of the Castro family and their adherents, further trade relations beyond humanitarian aid in the name of making a buck is an injustice to the Cuban people and their brave freedom advocates."
Adrean Rothkopf, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agreed with one lawmaker that the U.S. has a record of pursuing a double standard, isolating Cuba while engaging other countries with human rights problems.
She calls decisions by President Obama, and proposed legislation in Congress, important first steps toward a policy more likely to promote a transition to full Democracy and civil liberties. "Rather than encouraging Cuba to democratize, the embargo has helped prop up the Communist regime. Instead of isolating Cuba from the rest of the world, it has isolated the U.S. from its allies," she said.
Geoff Thale, Program Director at the Washington Office on Latin America, says the Obama administration should continue to press Cuba on clearly unacceptable violations of internationally-recognized [human rights] norms.
But he says engagement, and using trade as part of a broader strategy, is preferable to continuing a nearly 50 year embargo policy that has limited contact with Cuba, and left the U.S. with little influence there.
"We have very little influence and very little leverage. Cuba is free to ignore our views on human rights because we don't make much significant difference to the government, or its economy, or its politics, or its diplomacy," he said.
But Republican Representative Phil Gingrey says any future steps with Cuba must be heavily conditioned on human rights improvements. One question, he says, remains paramount as the Obama administration and the Castro government continue their contacts:
"Will Cuba trade with the U.S. improved political and economic conditions for the Cuban citizens, or will it simply reward and endorse the oppressive Communist government run by both Fidel and Raul Castro?," he said.
A State Department spokesman said this week that the Obama administration would like to see Cuba reciprocate for U.S. steps by easing political restrictions and releasing political prisoners, among other steps, but said the U.S. was not insisting on conditionality.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers recently that the Obama administration was taking a hard look at an initial statement by Cuban President Raul Castro that Havana would be willing to put everything on the table, including human rights, in bilateral discussions.
Clinton said this in response to Democratic Representative Barbara Lee, who with other anti-embargo members of Congress recently met with Raul and Fidel Castro: "I think that there is such a stake that the Castro regime has in making the U.S. the excuse for everything that goes wrong inside Cuba that they are going to really have a change in attitude about how and under what circumstances they would want to really have that discussion that you describe."
Secretary Clinton said the administration is available to engage with the Cuban government and remains open as part of its outreach efforts.