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Slight Thaw in U.S. Cuba Relations be in Offing?

Could a Slight Thaw in U.S.-Cuba Relations be in the Offing?

In an almost unprecedented move on October 28, Cuba publicly agreed to allow three USAID officials to visit the island to assess the recent heavy damage inflicted by Hurricane Wilma. While Cuba’s Fidel Castro has asserted that this action in no way constitutes an acceptance of U.S. foreign aid by the fiercely proud Havana regime, it nevertheless might suggest that Washington could be seeing the first fruits of its rare move to a more constructive Latin America policy.

Although it most likely will turn out to be illusory, the tiny softening of relations between Havana and Washington could have been spurred by several long overdue personnel moves within the State Department. The appointment of Thomas Shannon to succeed widely reviled ideologue Roger Noriega as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, and the earlier resignation of the controversial White House Latin American advisor Otto Reich, marked the end of the reign of the hard-line anti-Castro duo, and may signal a possible inauguration of a more rational strategy of regional engagement, even though longtime Cuba basher Caleb McCarry has been appointed Cuba Transition Coordinator.

The replacement of James Cason as head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana with Michael Parmly eliminated another anti-Cuban militant whose tell-tale opportunism and venomous tactics, along with those of Noriega and Reich, had help bring disrepute to the Bush administration’s Latin American diplomacy. Indeed, it was Parmly’s “respectful” letter that helped persuade Castro’s recent change of heart, and it is unlikely that the letter would have been ever sent without Shannon’s imprimatur.

Renewing even low-level, businesslike ties could have an impact. Such a détente could in turn increase pragmatic collaboration in such fields as drug interdiction, medical issues, immigration and fisheries. Recently, former DEA Director Asa Hutchinson mildly complained that there is no cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba in regards to anti-narcotics efforts owing to “the lack of formal channels and relations between the two nations,” and other DEA officials note that “our international presence is not in Cuba, and this is just the policy of this country.” Yet Havana has indicated an openness to cooperation in this area, as Cuban anti-drug officials have observed that there is “a mutual responsibility in the fight against drugs – it doesn’t matter if the problem is with the producing or consuming countries.” The DEA’s position suggests that if up to this point Cuba’s offers of cooperation were rejected on political rather than logistical grounds, perhaps the reestablishment of an even minimal cross-strait engagement could lead to enhanced performance.

With the Summit of the Americas (which will take place November 4-5 in Mar del Plata, Argentina) fast approaching, it is of the highest importance that the U.S. rehabilitate its regional diplomatic cachet, since it is no secret that up to now the Bush White House’s Latin American policy has achieved a level of rejection and repudiation that has been unrivaled since the period when Elliot Abrams grossly mishandled regional affairs during the Reagan administration and then perjured himself before a congressional committee.

This new possible thaw in the U.S.-Cuban standoff indicates that if such a change in course is occurring, it is because the administration may have taken an inventory of how destructive its current regional policy is to authentic U.S. hemispheric issues. Washington has in the past allowed the Miami rightwing exile community to exercise a virtual veto power over U.S.-Cuba relations, granting its front groups access to at least $60 million in public funds, despite the negligible results they have achieved. Breaking that linkage will be necessary if any fundamental shift to a rational policy of advancing well thought-out U.S. national interest is to take place. A recent Latinobarómetro survey suggests that Latin America may be receptive to a U.S. overture calling for warmer relations, if Washington indicates a genuine change of strategy, a change of tactics, and a change of heart.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Michael Lettieri

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