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Cuba Open to Diplomatic Talks With United States

April 17, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
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In a significant policy shift, Cuban leader Raul Castro signaled that Havana is open to new diplomatic talks with the United States. Analysts examined the move as President Obama arrived in Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas.

RAY SUAREZ: President Obama landed in Trinidad this afternoon for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of leaders from 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere.

Much of the focus at the weekend meeting, however, will be on a country that was not invited: Cuba, the hemisphere’s only un-elected government.

Earlier this week, President Obama eased travel restrictions and limits on remittances to the island by Cuban-Americans. A complete ban remains in place for most other Americans.

At a joint news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon yesterday in Mexico City, Mr. Obama said the ball was now in Cuba’s court.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don’t expect them to change overnight; that would be unrealistic. But we do expect that Cuba will send signals that they’re interested in liberalizing in such a way that not only do U.S.-Cuban relations improve, but so that the energy, and creativity, and initiative of the Cuban people can potentially be released.

RAY SUAREZ: Cuban President Raul Castro responded late yesterday at a meeting of leftist Latin American leaders in Venezuela, saying he was open to talks with the U.S. about “everything.”

RAUL CASTRO, president of Cuba (through translator): We have sent word to the North American government in private and in public that we are ready when they want to discuss everything: human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to discuss, but on equal terms, without a single shadow over our sovereignty and without the smallest violation of the rights of the Cuban people to govern themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today the U.S. welcomed Castro’s “overtures” and was considering a response. And the head of the Organization of American States said he would push for Cuba to be readmitted to the OAS, after 47 years, when the group meets in May.

Thawing relations?

RAY SUAREZ: For more on all this, we get two views. Ray Walser had a 27-year career in the Foreign Service with numerous postings in Latin America. He's now a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

And Julia Sweig is a director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and has written widely about Cuba. Her forthcoming book is "Cuba: What One Needs to Know."

And I guess what we need to know tonight, Julia, is whether this is significant or just another cycle in the endless freeze-and-thaw of Cuban-American relations?

JULIA SWEIG, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, we won't know, Ray, for a little while longer, but I see this as significant. We have a new president in the White House, a new president, albeit a Castro, too, in Havana, and both of them seem to be in a very public way sending out signals, grasping for ways to talk to one another, and in the case of this White House, taking some initial first steps to begin what I see as a potential, very significant thaw.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, we just heard Raul Castro a couple of moments ago putting by name issues on the table that were previously just unheard of because Cuba was very protective of its domestic policy in international discussions. Is that a serious new step?

JULIA SWEIG: I think that it is. As you said, the Cuban government has in the past said it is willing to talk on equal footing with the United States. But to list human rights, democracy, free speech, political prisoners as among the issues it is willing to put on the table to discuss, in equal terms, as the president noted, with Washington, is, I think, a recognition that the door's opening in Washington and this is a moment for Cuba to at least stick its toe through that door.

RAY SUAREZ: Ray Walser, what do you make of the developments of the last couple of hours?

RAY WALSER, Heritage Foundation: Well, first of all, let's go back to yesterday, where this statement was made. And that clip comes at the very end of an eight-hour -- I mean, an eight-minute -- thanks to YouTube, you only get a short period -- in which Raul, dressed full in military regalia, not in his civilian suit, recounts the various aggressions of the United States. He takes it back to the Bay of Pigs and he comes forward in a fairly lengthy diatribe recounting the history for which he has lived for, you know, lived through.

At the end, he makes the statement about, yes, let's talk to them. Everything is on the table.

And then, of course, he puts the caveats in there: We will speak as equals. There will be no impinging upon Cuban national sovereignty. And there will be no talking about national self-determination, which usually in that language means, "We really don't talk about our domestic situation."

So you get the first part, which Julia is right. It's a very nice statement. It talks about the things that we are very much interested in, with sort of the caveat and the fine print.

He then goes on to sign sort of the manifesto, which is the document of that summary, which is a diatribe against capitalism, a call for reparations for climate change, and everything like that. So I don't know if you're getting a whole lot of new think coming out of the Castro regime and his ALBA friends.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, perhaps no new think, but perhaps a new overture to the United States. Does this create the conditions that might not have existed six months ago, twelve months ago?

RAY WALSER: Well, as I said, it's one little segment. It's a piece of a statement that we're hanging on. I mean, the statements of Fidel this last week have been rather ambiguous. "Yes, this is not so bad. We can work with Obama." But on the other hand, he talks about the genocidal blockade and so forth.

So it's hard to -- for me. I mean, others may see other things, but I -- hard to see anything really, really new in this statement.

U.S. response

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there's two parts to any relationship, and the secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, called this a very welcome gesture. In remarks set to be delivered, evening on the east coast in Trinidad, Barack Obama talked about a new beginning in Cuban-American relations and said the U.S. is ready to engage.

So does this set the table for something or...

JULIA SWEIG: I think the table is set for a number of dimensions to unfold. The president of the United States clearly recognizes that he's dealing with 50 years of a political culture, a domestic politics in the United States that will take some time to begin to untangle, as Washington tries to reach out to Havana and, likewise, as he's recognized yesterday in Mexico, that Cuba also has many dimensions internally that will take some time to get a grasp on and even to see if real change will come.

But I believe that the table is set, that the moment is different for many reasons. Globally within the hemisphere, of course, a lot of insistence by Latin America which sees Latin America -- Cuba as a symbol -- excuse me -- that Washington begin to open a new chapter.

And this is a moment when you have public opinion universally in the United States in favor of change, within the Cuban-American community in favor of change, and within the Congress in favor of change, and a moment even when the issue of jobs, albeit at a very small level, could really open up, should the economic ties begin to thaw, as well.

So I see the stars aligning. However, there could be pitfalls, given the history and the politics that both countries come at it with.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you sounded a little bit more skeptical from the start, Ray Walser. What do you make of how the United States is playing this?

RAY WALSER: Well, I think we saw what the president did on Monday. He did follow through. This is one of the campaign commitments. He made it in the speech in May last year in Miami that he would use the Cuban-Americans as ambassadors, I think was the term that he used.

So they become sort of the leading phalanx of what is hoped to be some change or thaw in the relationship. And clearly, he has, in many respects -- I think some of the critics have said -- this is kind of like 90 percent of the Bush policy redux.

In other words, he's trying to carry out the people-to-people policy that was sort of at the center point of previous administrations, trying to maneuver around the regime, trying to deny them the sorts of resources that permit them to continue to oppress their people, and yet opening up a space, opening up telecommunications, for example.

So I think he has a plan. And I think you just have to begin to see if it will work.

Anyway, I mean, it's not going to be the big bang theory. The idea is that this statement is made. The president is at the summit. He's got the OAS secretary general who's breathing hard to get Cuba back into the OAS. He's got the other nations there as witnesses.

This is kind of a -- this is sort of a -- almost sort of a diplomatic mugging of sorts.

Future steps

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the brief time we have left, Raul Castro said what he said. Top members of the American administration have said what they have said. What happens next?

JULIA SWEIG: Well, it's time to get in a room, close the doors, and start talking. I don't know if that will mean that the president will respond to Senator Lugar's call for a special envoy for Cuba for the United States, or if congressional delegations, like the Black Caucus, will keep going down there, or between the low-level diplomatic missions that we do have in one another's countries we would start talking.

But I think that it's time to actually just get in the room and see what the deck of cards holds.

RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, Ray Walser, before we go, what should happen next, in your view?

RAY WALSER: I think there should be a channel that is open. It's not getting into the room; it is communications. There are -- and I think we see -- we take this back. People analyze it. They look. We assess where things are in three to six months, as Cuba opens up to travel.

Do they, for example, let telecommunications link up to give greater sort of media freedom in the country? And then, you know, you can talk about other forms of engagement. We've put a lot on their plate at this point, and let's see if they can digest it.

RAY SUAREZ: But face to face further down the road, you're saying?

RAY WALSER: Perhaps down the road, if their changes begin to take place, and there are things that they could do straightaway.

RAY SUAREZ: Ray Walser, Julia Sweig, thank you both.

RAY WALSER: Thank you.

JULIA SWEIG: Thanks so much.