The Cable

U.S.-Cuba rapprochement? Not anytime soon

At last week's Senate Intelligence committee hearing, top officials acknowledged that President Obama's campaign promise to drastically alter U.S. policy toward Cuba is meeting some significant roadblocks.

"Cuba has demonstrated few signs of wanting a closer relationship with the United States," DNI Adm. Dennis Blair said in his prepared remarks. "President Raúl Castro fears that rapid or significant economic change would undermine regime control and weaken the revolution, and his government shows no signs of easing his repression of political dissidents."

Despite some cooperation during the Haiti crisis, the State Department sees few signs that the Cuban government is genuinely interested in repairing relations, despite an encouraging start. Last April, the Obama administration made a series of small changes to America's Cuba policy, some related to family travel and remittances. The two sides held migration talks in July and discussed mail service in September. In October, Bisa Williams, then a deputy assistant secretary of state, traveled to Havana to hold talks on resuming direct mail service between the two countries.

But since the Williams visit, there hasn't been much good news to report, and Williams has moved on to be nominated for U.S. ambassador to Niger.

"Well, if you look at Cuba from November until now you'll see that they've had more of a strident tone and series of actions," a State Department official working on the issue told The Cable. "There were some improvements in terms of our ability to operate in Cuba and our interest section in Cuba ... we hope that the Cuban government will take positive measures of its own to improve the conditions for the Cuban people -- and there we haven't seen very much."

Advocates of engagement with the Castro regime criticize an administration policy they see as being based on "conditionality," waiting for the Cubans to respond to American overtures before taking further steps. That strategy is not likely to produce progress, they argue. But the official said the U.S. approach is not based on conditionality at all.

"What we said was that we hoped that there would be positive measures undertaken not because of what we were doing but because of the need to improve conditions, period. We've not said that if we do this, then you'll do that."

The official did mention some measures the Cuban government could take that would be viewed as positive signs by the U.S. side, such as lowering charges on remittances and increasing respect for religious freedom among Cuban citizens. But those are "suggestions" not "conditionalities," the official insisted.

The bottom line is that the Obama team hasn't seen any real steps by the Cuban government in response to the steps they've already taken and no further steps by the U.S. side are planned right now. Talks between the governments have stopped and planned talks on migration have yet to be scheduled.

Obama had also promised to reform the Cold War-era sanctions regime, but when asked why there is no drive to alter the underlying laws, administration officials point back to Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers stands poised to obstruct any such effort.

Some of them, like Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and New Jersey Sen. Robert Mendendez, hail from areas with strong anti-Castro populations. Other opponents of lifting sanctions, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, have more ideological reasons.

The Obama team doesn't see anyone, however, willing to overcome such opposition and push hard for repealing sanctions. "The reality is that this administration is very much based on setting priorities and making sure they're going after the right priorities," the official said. "They're pretty busy, so taking on another issue like this where there is not a clear drive on the Hill, is a pretty substantial undertaking."

So the Cuba issue continues to be managed, but not radically rethought inside the administration. Day-to-day operations are run through the State Department's Cuba desk, which sits under the assistant secretary for Western hemisphere affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, and the deputy assistant secretary who manages Cuba issues, Julissa Reynoso.

Higher-level policy decisions are overseen by the senior director for the Western hemisphere at the National Security Council, Dan Rastrepo. When it comes to sanctions, Adam Szubin, the director for the Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury, is a key figure. The deputy assistant secretary for Western hemisphere affairs at the Pentagon is Frank Mora, and he handles defense-related issues.

Overall, the Obama team is still looking for ways to make incremental changes in the U.S. approach to Cuba, probably without the direct involvement or cooperation of the Cuban regime.

"The fact that we don't have anything to announce doesn't mean that everything has ground to a halt," the official said. "On the contrary, we are continuing to look for ways to advance our interests where it's going to be important to U.S. citizens. Again, our hope is that the Cuban government will respond to the needs of their own population."

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