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President Barack Obama seeks 'a new beginning' with Cuba
President Barack Obama ushered in a new U.S. relationship with Cuba on Friday and set the stage for talks with Cuban President Raul Castro on some of the contentious issues that have divided their nations for 47 years.

"The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba," Obama said at the opening of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. "I know there's a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust. But there are critical steps we can take toward a new day."

Experts on U.S.-Cuba relations say talks between the two adversaries would build momentum to lift the ban on American travel to Cuba and ease the U.S. trade embargo.

The talks, if agreed upon, most likely would take up matters of special importance to South Florida, such as joint efforts to control the flow of immigration, stop narcotics trafficking and set up telecommunications links.

"If the U.S. goes into talks thinking the Cubans are going to negotiate over the basic socialistic nature of their economic and political system, we are going to be disappointed," said William LeoGrande, an expert on Cuba policy at American University in Washington. "But if they talk about mutual interests where tensions can be reduced, we will see some progress."

Obama cleared a path for new relations with Cuba on Monday by removing limits on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans to Cuba. He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called upon Cuba to reciprocate this "good faith" gesture.

Castro responded by offering to discuss all things with Obama as long as it's done with mutual respect. Most significant, Castro departed from past statements by saying he would be willing to discuss human rights, political prisoners and press freedom in Cuba.

"We welcome his comments, the overture they represent," Clinton said on Friday, "and we are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond."

The potential breakthrough on Cuba helped Obama display a flexible U.S. leadership style when meeting with leaders of 33 nations at the summit this weekend. Many of those leaders want Obama to relax or remove the U.S. embargo of Cuba, which is strongly opposed in Latin America.

Jose Miguel Insulza, head of the Organization of American States, said on Friday he will ask members to readmit Cuba, which was cast out of the group 47 years ago.

While Latin Americans welcomed the new U.S. policy, Floridians who support the U.S. embargo said talks alone will not bring about democratic change in Cuba.

"It's up to the Cuban regime to take steps beyond their words," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. "It is in their power today to free unjustly imprisoned people."

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said he foresees nothing good coming out of talks with Cuban leaders, whom he called "narco-terrorists."

"It's not a question of having talks with the jailers of the Cuban people," Diaz-Balart said. "It's a question of opening the jail doors."

By law, he said, the United States cannot establish diplomatic relations with Cuba until its government frees all political prisoners and allows multiple political parties to take part in elections.

Past U.S. presidents were frustrated by their attempts to move toward normal relations with Cuba.

Former President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s allowed direct flights between Miami and Havana, and the two nations established unofficial embassies, known as interests sections.

But when thousands of Cubans clamored for asylum in 1980, then-President Fidel Castro unleashed a mass migration of 125,000 in what was called the Mariel Boatlift. Castro released common criminals to join the exodus of political dissidents.

In the 1990s, former President Bill Clinton loosened rules on travel to Cuba, and the two nations worked out an arrangement for safe and legal immigration.

But just when relations seemed to improve, Brothers to the Rescue, an exile group in Florida, flew provocatively close to the Cuban coast, and two of its planes were shot down by Cuban jet fighters. An angry Congress answered by toughening the embargo.

Some observers believe talks this year could have a lasting impact.

"I clearly think there's a desire on both sides to reconfigure this relationship," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., who is pushing legislation to allow all Americans to visit Cuba.

"I think we could enter into a new arena of government-to-government communications on significant issues. We need to have migration talks. We need to talk about drug interdictions. I think we will see some critical breakthroughs."
19 Apr 2009 by admin
The Havana Journal

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