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Obama vows change in U.S. policy on Cuba

Cuba's communist leadership has long cast itself as David standing up to the U.S. Goliath and the crippling force of America's punitive trade and travel embargo.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cuba's communist leadership has long cast itself as David standing up to the U.S. Goliath and the crippling force of America's punitive trade and travel embargo.

Now they have a problem: If Barack Obama follows through on campaign promises to ease restrictions on the island, he could chip away at the Castro brothers' best case for staying in power.

And if a new Democrat-dominated Congress takes Obama's moves even further, Cuban leaders may have a hard time maintaining their tight control over Cuban society.

"They'd have to throw out the whole script about American imperialism," said Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank.

Top Cuban ideologues are already worried.

"We have before us the immense challenge of how to face a new chapter in the cultural struggle against the enemy," Armando Hart, 78-year-old patriarch of Cuban communists, warned last week in Granma, the party newspaper.

If Cuban-Americans are allowed to visit more frequently and send more money to the island, it could spark "a new chapter in the ideological war between the Cuban revolution and imperialism," Hart wrote.

Trade and travel embargo
The U.S. government's Cuba policy has been frozen in time since 1962, when it imposed the embargo with the aim of bringing down Fidel Castro's government at a time when U.S.-backed exiles mounted the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and Soviet missiles in Cuba pushed the world close to nuclear war.

Sporadic congressional efforts to end the embargo since then have failed, largely due to the political influence of powerful Cuban exiles who insisted on isolating Cuba and trying to strangle its economy to force Castro out.

But Castro, now 82, remained in power until he ceded the presidency to his brother in February due to illness. And Raul Castro, 77, shows no sign of making any fundamental changes.

The embargo is "a policy that hasn't worked in nearly 50 years," said Wayne Smith, a former top U.S. diplomat to Havana and a Cuba fellow at John Hopkins' Center for International Policy. "It's stupid, it's counterproductive and there is no international support for it."

Obama has promised to lift limits that President George W. Bush tightened on Cuban-Americans wanting to visit and send money to relatives. He also says he's open to a dialogue with Raul Castro — something the Cuban president has indicated he would welcome.

If Obama really wants to force the Castros to open up, he should push Congress to eliminate the embargo altogether, and allow Americans to freely travel to Cuba, said Smith. "Lifting travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans just doesn't get to the heart of the problem."

So far, Obama has said he supports the embargo. But many hope his initially modest moves will encourage the Democrat-controlled Congress to do something bold.

"Today for the first time there is real political space for an incoming administration to try something new on Cuba policy," said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which opposes all unilateral sanctions.

Shifting voter attitudes
When Obama visited Florida during his campaign he was hosted by the Cuban American National Foundation, a longtime bastion of Republicans who shot down any attempt to ease the embargo. Obama ended up carrying Florida, winning even in counties that re-elected Republican representatives who have been the most stalwart proponents of isolating Cuba.

Even these Cuban-Americans, while they still support the embargo, may sense a shift in voters' attitudes. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart de-emphasized Cuba in their campaigns, focusing on the economy, health care and Iraq.

Obama is unlikely to ignore their views, but if he wants to force a change in Cuba policy, he might not need their votes.

In Havana, dissident journalist Miriam Leiva says toppling the embargo could be agonizing for communist leaders who have long used it to "justify their errors and efficiencies, to repress and jail anyone of differing opinions."

But Cuban officials insist they want all U.S. restrictions toward the island to end.

"We expect that the new president will change the policy toward Cuba after nearly 50 years," Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told The Associated Press after the U.N. General Assembly last month voted 185 to 3 (the U.S., Israel and Palau) with 2 abstentions (Micronesia and the Marshall Islands) to repeal the embargo.

Many Cubans are hoping a new U.S. administration will encourage openings that improve their lives.

In a congratulatory letter to Obama, government opponent Hector Palacio Ruiz expressed hope the new administration would allow direct financial aid to dissidents and "eliminate the obstacles that impede us from putting an end to the tyranny that our people suffer."

Leiva argued in an essay that a freer flow of visitors to the island "could favor the sharing of democratic ideas indispensable at this time, when urgent change is required."