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Cuba, US Struggle to Repair Long-Frayed Relationship


Cuba at night

Already President Obama has ended travel limits on Cuban-Americans and called for new talks between the nations, but Havana says Washington is not going far enough.

President Barack Obama has been under pressure to recast the nation's relations with Cuba and ease decades of restrictions on the Communist government. Already the president has ended travel limits on Cuban-Americans and called for new talks between the nations, but Havana says Washington is not going far enough.

As many people make plans to visit family for the holidays, Cuban-Americans are hoping to take advantage of new rules that ease travel to the island. Earlier this year, President Obama reversed a 2002 rule that limited how often Cuban-Americans could visit relatives or send remittances to the island. Supporters of the rule say fewer travelers meant less U.S. money was getting to the Cuban government, but critics say the rule simply kept families apart.

Since the change, travel agents say activity is up and some charter companies have added more flights to accommodate the flood of Cuban-Americans making trips back to the island.

In Miami, Alvaro Fernandez advocated against the U.S. travel restrictions for years. He was one of the first to take advantage of the new rules and return to Cuba earlier this year, and he says many other Cuban-Americans are doing the same.

"This time of the year is when people travel," he explained. "It's a family thing, they want to spend the end of the year together. So now with travel easier, more people are going."

At the same time, the Obama administration has been reaching out to the Cuban government to end decades of isolation and mutual distrust. Officials met in September to discuss renewing direct mail. They also plan to reopen talks on migration issues, which were canceled by former President George W. Bush in 2003.

Officials on both sides say it will take numerous efforts and a prolonged commitment to bring together the former Cold War foes.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the ball is in Washington's court. He acknowledged the steps that U.S. officials have taken this year, but said they were moving far too slowly.

Rodriguez told the assembly that the chief problem is that the U.S. embargo against trade and financial activity remains in place.

Washington has enforced the embargo for nearly 50 years, in part to press the Communist nation to move toward democratization and greater respect for human rights. Some U.S. leaders say the hard-line stance has clearly failed to achieve the goal.

Now, lawmakers are working on a bill that would enable all Americans to travel to Cuba, not just Cuban-Americans. Supporters of the House measure say one of the best ways to spur democratic change in Cuba is through direct contact with Americans visiting the island.

Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst for the Lexington Institute near Washington, says the bill has a good chance of winning approval early next year.

"They got 180 co-sponsors of this bill to end all the travel restrictions, so that certainly puts them in striking distance," he said.

Critics of the proposal say it could have the opposite effect in Cuba, and actually empower the repressive government. Cuba's government controls all major economic sectors on the island, so critics say an increase in tourist activity would increase the flow of government revenue.

At a recent congressional hearing, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen attacked the travel proposal, saying scores of other foreign visitors have had little impact inside Cuba.

"European visitors, visitors from Mexico. Canada sends so many visitors to Cuba. What has the Cuban regime done? Has it unclenched its fist? Did I miss that?" she asked.

Critics of Havana also point to recent events on the island as evidence that Cuban officials have no desire to release political prisoners or stop violent crackdowns on dissidents. Popular Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez claims that plain-clothes officers beat her on the way to a recent protest. Authorities also detained several dissidents during a march to celebrate Human Rights Day in December.

University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado recently visited Cuba to explore opportunities for rapprochement between the two governments. He says many Cuban leaders have a sincere interest in improving ties, but there are rogue elements in the Cuban government who are not prepared to relax political control on the island.

"They want to remind people that yes, there certainly is hope for the future, but we are still in control here," he said.

In coming months, Benjamin-Alvarado says U.S. officials will have a delicate job of pressing Cuba to open up while at the same time not appearing to bully its smaller neighbor. He says there are a number of non-political areas, such as anti-drug operations, where the two governments can begin to cooperate. But it may be a long and slow process to overcome five decades of tension and mutual distrust.