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Widening Opportunity For Washington And Havana

A Widening Window Of Opportunity For Washington And Havana To Constructively Engage

* U.S. offer to directly deliver food to Havana, in wake of most devastating storm to hit Cuba since 1944, is a watershed event and could be step one in a breakthrough in relations

* Gesture could become comparable to Nixon's engagement of China in 1973

* Deal, which would cost Cuba between $3 to 10 million in cash, has received White House approval and promises that Washington would expedite necessary special licenses for the sale and delivery, most likely by U.S. vessels, of lumber, corn, wheat, rice and soy

* Past debates after hurricanes had leveled the region, including Cuba, centered on how to send U.S. public aid to the island without strengthening the "Castro regime." U.S. actions now seem to transcend ideological polemics by addressing most basic human needs

* U.S.-brokered deal triggered after Havana's polite rejection of relief aid and subsequent request for the right to purchase food and medicine directly, was considered in light of mounting pressure from U.S. agricultural sectors to open up the Cuban market. Coupled with the Senate Agricultural Committee's support of federal financing for agricultural exports to Cuba, these moves suggest momentum is growing for a dialogue leading to a gradual changeover in U.S.-Cuba relations

Possibly marking a watershed moment in U.S.-Cuban relations, Washington broke its four decade-long history of obdurately nay-saying any move in favor of a constructive relationship with Havana - even if that means denying assistant to Cuban civilians caught up in a natural calamity - when a U.S. administration, for the first time, decided to facilitate Havana's multimillion dollar purchase of lumber, corn, wheat, rice, soy and medical products to help Cuba restock its reserves of essentials seriously depleted by hurricane Michelle. The delivery of such goods, initially demanded by Castro to take place aboard Cuban vessels, will instead be carried out by U.S. or third country ships, marking a major concession on Havana's part, which might reveal how newfound flexibility can build significant momentum in favor of constructive engagement.

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Because the unprecedented agreement falls within the existing parameters of the U.S. embargo, the deal presented a delicate political issue for Havana to rationalize. Last year Castro swore to never purchase American goods after legislation to ostensibly liberalize the embargo was highjacked by right wing members of congress intent on eliminating U.S. financing of exports to the island. Despite its heated disagreement with the embargo, Havana's decision to live with the new formula suggests that the gravity of the economic situation and Castro's ability to learn new tricks indicates that he is prepared to accept Washington's goodwill gesture at face value. What remains to be seen, however, is whether this episode will engender a more substantive diplomatic discussion on issues such as navigation, air space, refugees and drug interdiction, if it is merely a one shot arrangement which will go nowhere.

The Good Samaritan The White House, acting out of a "humanitarian need context," played an active role in clearing a major hurdle to the deal by expediting the Commerce Department's issuance of the licenses necessary for American companies to sell and deliver to Havana. On the surface, the significance of the initiative is somewhat analogous to Nixon's opening to China in 1973, and presents a widening window of opportunity that could initiate a deepening and broadening of a dialogue between the two long-time foes. Conceivably, the process could spur preliminary discussions that could end up phasing out the outmoded 40-year old U.S. economic embargo against the island.

In fact, in this latest round of hurricane diplomacy, Cuba's foreign minister expressed optimism regarding recent developments, calling for the U.S. to terminate its stepped-up restrictions on travel to the island and pronouncing Havana ready for normalized relations with Washington. As of now, according to the State Department, the diplomatic exchange is over and it is up to U.S. companies and Havana to seal the deal. Cuban authorities already are in contact with 15 agro-industrial companies and 15 firms that produce medical supplies or pharmaceuticals. Although both government as well as company officials have confirmed that discussions leading to possible agreements are in the works, no immediate action as yet has been taken. Cuba, for the record, stated that the purchase is a one-time arrangement that does not alter its fundamental opposition to the terms of the U.S. trade embargo.

Polite exchange sets tone for agreement The genesis of the truly important agreement can be attributed to a natural calamity that devastated 45,000 homes on the island nation and attracted international attention to Cuba's pressing need for humanitarian assistance, as well as helped produce unusually civil diplomatic exchange between Washington and Havana. The State Department, in a dramatic shift from its past policy of total intransigence on the issue, initiated the discussions by publicly offering hurricane relief aid to Cuba. Shortly thereafter, Havana responded to the U.S. tender in a manner devoid of its usual bitter bite, thanking Washington for its kind gesture, but requesting that the Cuban government be allowed to have direct access to purchase U.S. medical supplies and food.

Political fallout The surprising new, almost amicable, tone in their bilateral relations suggests a détente might be possible down the road which could prove to be politically beneficial for both Washington and Havana. Bona fide dialogue, beginning at a relatively low diplomatic level, which would focus on chipping away at the four-decade old anachronistic trade embargo rather than seeking its abrogation in one major step, would follow a realistic scenario. The fact is that aside from the more ultra right-wing members of the Miami Cuban-American community, and a handful of conservative Representatives, support for the embargo has withered away. Many in the U.S. business, religious, academic and agricultural sectors, and even some Reagan-era policy planners, oppose the outdated embargo. In fact, advocates of the embargo have been overtaken by the recent food aid proposal engagement and are now on the fringe of the political process.

Miami's Cuban exile leadership, with nowhere else to go politically, should attempt to assess the changing dynamics of U.S.-Cuban relations. In reality, the agreement on the purchase of essentials gives only a marginal boost for the Castro government, just when it was going through hard times. The Cuban economy, already weakened by the recent region-wide reduction in tourism resulting from a marked economic slowdown in the EU and Canada, as well as from the repercussions of September 11, faced the prospect of a major financial crisis considering the magnitude of Michelle's destruction. The American supplies should help in short-term relief efforts. More importantly, however, the arrangement could set an important precedent for future trade, as Havana would prefer to reduce shipping costs on goods, that in some cases have had to travel from as far as Vietnam, by purchasing from its neighbor only 90 miles away. It is estimated that Cuba now spends between $700 million and 1 billion on purchasing foodstuffs from U.S. competitors in Asia, Argentina and France, among others, an amount that U.S. suppliers believe would be reduced if regular sales between the two nations were permitted.

Castro has always derided the embargo as an act of economic imperialism, unjustly denying Cubans vital food and medicine imports. Washington's move could prove to be a powerful political tonic for Castro and inevitably will lift his prestige. Also, the historic transfer of U.S. goods (possibly even on U.S. vessels) to Cuban docks will attract positive international press coverage for both the White House and President Castro (if he is wise enough to publicly thank the American people). The Bush administration will at least be an equal beneficiary of worldwide praise as it has been U.S. policy towards Cuba, and not Castro, which has been regarded as isolationist and self-defeating.

For Washington, the political motivation for its change of policy is difficult to precisely track. Previously, the Bush administration sent Havana an inflammatory signal by nominating Otto Reich, an anti-Castro Cold War extremist who was tenaciously supported by the far right leadership of the Miami Cuban-American community, to the top Latin American policymaking post in the State Department. The food and medicine deal, however, sends a constructive message to Cuba. Yet the move has not been explained beyond its obvious humanitarian purpose. Without question, it is in the interest of Cuban democratization that Washington generate a constructive dialogue with Havana.

Until the State Department made its surprising move on hurricane relief, the decades-long schism between the two nations had been, if anything, worsening. Formulating a new, positive diplomatic posture could prove useful to the two nations as the Castro era approaches its natural end. To ensure that a peaceful transition of power will be the paramount goal of U.S. policy makers, Washington must not see any relapse in its constructive posture. Even the most basic diplomatic ties will prove helpful in avoiding a bellicose struggle over the succession of leadership on the island that could eventually affect the U.S. mainland. In fact, the two nations should widen the agenda of issues to be discussed to include the establishment of cooperative initiatives on drug interdiction, laws of the sea, refugee and air space questions as well as a broad range of economic, terrorism, trade, human rights observance and democratization concerns. Move consonant with recent trend to liberalize and dispense with embargo The humanitarian food and medicine relief agreement comes at an interesting time in the ongoing congressional debate on Cuba. For the past two years the Florida delegation on the Hill has lost much of its clout on Cuba. The House voted to repeal the travel ban and measures to abrogate the entire embargo failed by relatively small margins. Two weeks ago, however, the Senate decided not to act on the controversial Cuba travel ban repeal, which was viewed at the time as pleasing a White House loath to appear soft on Cuba. Of greatest importance in the current trend towards normalized relations, however, is the rising profile of the anti-embargo campaign by various U.S. farm interest groups and their legislators, who are insisting that trade links with Cuba be extended in order to facilitate American exports to the island. On November 15, the Senate Agricultural Committee passed its funding measure, which permits federal financing of agricultural exports to Cuba, a measure that would establish a direct ongoing economic link between Washington and Havana. A delegation from the USA Rice Federation, which represents a majority of the nation's rice farmers, recently returned from a Havana International Trade Fair, marking the first official visit of a U.S. trade group to such an event in nearly four decades. Upon their return from Havana, USA Rice officials announced their support of the State Department's hurricane relief effort, the Agricultural Committee's vote on federal financing, as well as their serious interest in gaining access for U.S. rice farmers to Cuba's billion dollar rice purchasing market.

The lesson of Hurricane Lili In the past, Washington has been unyielding when it came to providing any form of disaster relief if Cuba was one of the areas assaulted by a natural calamity. In 1996, when Hurricane Lili leveled thousands of structures, the only U.S. relief effort came from one Miami-based Catholic Charities group. Historically, Miami exile polemics shaped the debate over Cuba, automatically ruling out the country from receiving any U.S. assistance. This obstacle still plagues efforts at constructively engaging Cuba today.

In 1996, militant anti-Castro forces argued once again that assistance sent to the island would never reach those most in need and would end up in the hands of Castro officials, where the money would be used to strengthen a despised dictatorship. Some Cuban-Americans fear that sending aid would signify an ideological decision, not a humanitarian gesture. As a result, aid sent family-to-family as a permitted remittance would have to do the job, but it would not be sufficient. That is why skeptics should suspend disbelief and see Washington's recent step as an astute decision that shuns the sterile responses inexorably made by all White Houses dating back to President Kennedy. Furthermore, the State Department's monitoring of the 1996 church donation to Caritas, the Cuban equivalent of Catholic Charities, concluded that the aid reached its intended destination. Ironically, this little-recalled episode might have established a platform of trust between the State Department and Havana and encouraged U.S. officials to immediately intercede after Michelle had rained destruction.

Towards restored ties Despite the deep-rooted mistrust between the two capitals, Washington would be wise to follow Havana's lead in expressing interest in expanding its present minimal ties and view 1996's successful shipment of aid, the Senate Agricultural Committee's recent key vote, USA Rice's scouting out of trade opportunities on the island, the Bush administration's intervention on behalf of the cash purchase, Havana's decision to let the goods be delivered by U.S. or third country vessels, and the positive tone of the recent diplomatic exchanges between the two nations, as the foundation for initiating talks that could produce the critical mass necessary for the development of constructive relations in the coming months.

COHA Research Group, Michael Marx McCarthy, lead researcher

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "One of our nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

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