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Kerry: US Engagement Seeks to Encourage Change in Cuba

  • Victor Beattie

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands during their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, April 11, 2015.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands during their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, April 11, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States has embarked on a “policy of transformation” with its engagement with Cuba.

His comments follow President Barack Obama’s unprecedented meeting Saturday with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, on the sidelines of a regional summit. Kerry said the Obama administration will soon decide whether to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Kerry told broadcast interviewers Sunday the current U.S. policy of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, in place soon after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, “hasn’t had the impact that people wanted.”

"Our belief is very powerful that, by beginning to engage, by beginning to have greater travel, greater ability to move, greater ability to visit, ideas and opportunities will grow, that the Cuban people themselves will have a greater opportunity for [freedom of] expression and for an exchange of views, and that is what will promote a transformation over a period of time," Kerry said.

"We have to begin somewhere and the president has courageously decided to change a policy that hasn’t worked," he added.

Process of normalization

Kerry said that transformation will begin slowly, first with diplomatic relations and then embark on a process of normalization.

Obama’s meeting Saturday with Castro was the first between leaders of the two nations in more than a half-century. Obama said the talks could serve as a "turning point” in relations and said most Americans and Cubans support rapprochement.

Kerry said he has made a recommendation to Obama about whether to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, something Cuba is demanding.

"The president will make his decision at an appropriate time. We have forwarded the recommendation of the State Department and it is now in the inter-agency process and he will make the decision," Kerry said.

The secretary said he expects that decision “in the next days.”

In a separate broadcast interview Sunday, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there is a fundamental problem with the policy. He said Washington is giving Havana everything it wants and has received nothing in return to benefit the Cuban people.

Menendez referred to the case of convicted murderer Joanne Chesimard, who escaped a U.S. prison in 1977 and sought asylum in Cuba.

"The reality is to take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, when we have Joanne Chesimard, a woman who killed a New Jersey State trooper and is on the FBI’s list of 10 Most Wanted Terrorists, a Cuba that ultimately violated U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea [by] shipping arms to North Korea, or recently had a cargo that was being shipped to it that the Colombians stopped with arms which were probably going to go to the [rebel] FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), or that holds terrorists like ETA, the Basque separatist terrorists out of Spain, and a whole host of fugitives," he said.

"If you can violate international arms items and have terrorists in your country, it seems to me that’s a country you don’t take off your terrorist list," Menendez said.

He also said Obama has the “misguided calculation” that if you open your hands to dictators, they will unclench their fists.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, whose father emigrated from Cuba, released a statement Saturday criticizing Obama for doing “what nine previous presidents of both parties would not: cave to a communist dictator in our own hemisphere.”

Cruz said the president is “leaving the Cuban people imprisoned in the past.”

US-Cuba policy

Rice University Latin American scholar Mark Jones called Obama’s decision last December to normalize relations an audacious move that transforms U.S. policy from a relic of the Cold War to 21st century realities. He said it will also benefit U.S. relations with the rest of Latin America.

The U.S. policy regarding Cuba has "only held us back and made us look bad. Even among our allies in Latin America, there’s quite a bit of skepticism, if not embarrassment, regarding U.S.-Cuba policy," Jones said. "It’s also a smart thing to do economically in that Cuba will be a good market for U.S. exports, particularly agricultural goods eventually and getting started on the normalization process is a move in the right direction."

Cuban analyst Ted Henken of New York’s Baruch College acknowledges Cuban leader Castro has insisted the communist government and its policies won’t change.

"He did also say, interestingly and surprisingly, I thought, during the conversation he had with Barack Obama that the things we may disagree on today, the world moves very fast, we may end up agreeing on tomorrow," Henken said.

"I don’t think that Raul Castro has become a democrat in his last three years in office; he says he’s going to step down in 2018. But I do think that laying the groundwork now and look towards the future is the right move, because it’s not really about Obama, it’s not really about Raul Castro, it’s about the Cuban people, and I think this policy has a much better chance of helping them than the past policy,” he said.

Henken said the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba could be ended by Congress, perhaps before Obama leaves office in early 2017, if there are enough positive results coming from last December’s announcement by both governments their intention to restore diplomatic ties.

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