- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The announcement that U.S. and Cuban officials will hold landmark talks this week toward restarting direct mail service between the two nations prompted a mix of reactions on Monday on whether the Obama administration plans a broader outreach to the Castro regime in the president’s second term.

Veteran Cuba watchers agreed that the development is unlikely to trigger a wider normalization in relations any time soon. But the notion that the talks — slated forThursday and Friday — could pull Washington and Havana closer than they’ve been in more than half a century prompted a harsh reaction from at least one Republican on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, said that the White House is caving to pressure from Cuban leaders desperate to end trade restrictions frozen since the 1960s.

“The regime is once again manipulating the U.S. administration in this game because it wants us to lift the embargo and make further concessions,” said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, a former chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch opponent of easing the stand-off that has defined bilateral relations 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 Raul.

The State Department said Monday that the postal talks will occur well within policy boundaries set long ago by Congress.

The talks will be led by R. Cabanas Rodriguez, the chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and Lea Emerson, the U.S. Postal Service’s director of international postal affairs.

Similar negotiations in 2009 failed to produce an agreement. Separate negotiations on issues such as immigration have been on hold during recent years amid tensions simmering between the U.S. and Cuba over the trade embargo and Washington’s unwillingness to remove Cuba from its official list of state sponsors of terrorism.

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

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen alluded to the case in a statement Monday, asserting that “a U.S. citizen languishes unjustly in a Cuban prison and brave freedom Cuban activists are risking their lives while on hunger strikes to protest the island tyranny.”

Some Cuba policy experts suggested the postal talks could lead to something more ambitious

This is the way diplomacy is conducted,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Council of the Americas in New York. “The idea some have, that these talks represent a concession, when it fact it will open up precisely the channels of communication we want to have, defies the very notion of diplomacy and the stated goals of our Cuba policy.”

“For the past couple of years, there has been little movement at all — the U.S. has insisted that the unconditional release of Alan Gross was a prerequisite to any action on other issues, and the relationship seemed stuck,” added Geoff Thale, a program director at the Washington Office on Latin America. “But in the last months, we’ve seen small steps on both sides.”

Months prior to Mr. Gross’ December 2009 arrest, President Obama signaled an interest in opening a new era of relations with Cuba. “The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,” he said during a speech at the Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago that year.

Advocates of such an opening were largely unimpressed Monday by the announcement that postal talks will be held this week. “Any step taken toward expanding the free flow of information and resources from the United States to the Cuban people is a step in the right direction, but it does fall short of Obama’s stated goal of really seeking a new beginning and a new relationship,” said Ricardo Herrero, deputy executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a Washington-based Cuban exile organization.

“There so much more the administration could be doing now to expand the flow of resources and to help empower Cuban society,” said Mr. Herrero, who suggested the administration lift import and export bans on certain goods and services for “private Cuban entrepreneurs.”

“If a private Cuban entrepreneur comes up with an iPhone app, that private Cuban entrepreneur should be allowed to sell that app in the iTunes store,” he added. “The embargo prohibits trade with the Cuban state — with a few exceptions for food and medicine — but this would be trading with private entrepreneurs and that’s a very different set of circumstances.”


• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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