- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2013

The State Department has quietly been holding talks with a small but diverse cadre of Cuban natives in Washington — including democracy activists offering insider views of the communist island’s politics — that analysts say could send shock waves through the long-standing debate about what a future U.S. policy toward Cuba should look like.

Obama administration officials are mum on the closed-door meetings, including one held at Foggy Bottom last week with renowned Cuban hunger-striker Guillermo Farinas, who came bearing a somewhat paradoxical message: Most pro-democracy activists now operating in Cuba, which has been a Communist dictatorship and a U.S. enemy for more than a half-century, oppose lifting the long-standing U.S. embargo on trade with their nation.

Such realities may not surprise close Cuba watchers, who say U.S. officials have known for years that ending the embargo might unleash a flow of badly needed foreign cash to the government of President Raul Castro — enhancing its ability to crush the island’s fragile pro-democracy movement.

But activists like Mr. Farinas are now being allowed to inject their views directly into the heart of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, ironically because he and other dissidents have been allowed to take advantage of January’s historic lifting by the Castro government of a decades-old ban on travel abroad.

“The activists are feeling with their blood and bones the repression of the Cuban security apparatus,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington.

U.S. policymakers “now get to actually see it and feel it firsthand from the protagonists themselves,” he said. “That’s extraordinary and it’s very helpful.”

The impact such visits are having on the Obama administration, however, is a subject of debate.

Mr. Farinas’ visit occurred in the shadow of headlines from a landmark meeting last month between U.S. and Cuban officials, who talked about possibly re-establishing direct mail service between the two nations. The two nations plan to meet July 17 to talk about regulating migration.

Together, the negotiations have some in Washington wondering whether the Obama administration is looking to break the stalemate that has defined U.S. relations with Havana since Cuban leader Fidel Castro agreed to house Soviet ballistic missiles in 1961.

Mr. Castro, 86, stepped down in 2008, and the top post is now held by his 82-year-old brother, who has allowed such incremental reforms as the easing of the ban on his citizens’ travel. Raul Castro has said that he will step down when his five-year term ends in 2018.

But Cuba remains on Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and sources close to the Obama administration told The Washington Times that ongoing frustration with Havana’s detention of American Alan Gross is likely to prevent the kind of wide-scale redefinition of policy some thought would come during Mr. Obama’s presidency.

Washington wants the release of Mr. Gross, a subcontractor who was arrested in 2009 while working for a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program. Cuban authorities accused him of illegally delivering satellite phones to individuals in the nation’s Jewish community and gave him a 15-year prison sentence.

His detention served only to amplify back-channel tensions with Havana. The Castro government has for its part long complained about U.S. treatment of the “Cuban Five” — a group of Cuban intelligence officers convicted in Miami in 2001 of conspiracy to spy on U.S. military installations, Cuban exiles and anti-Castro politicians.

‘Modest thaw’

The recent move toward re-establishing direct mail with the U.S. and the upcoming talks on migration might seem insignificant within the context of such tensions.

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