- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

President Obama hailed a new chapter in the U.S.-Cuba relationship this week at the United Nations, but analysts say realities on the ground on the communist island — and the continued “Cold War rhetoric” of Cuban President Raul Castro — demonstrate that the easy part of mending the bilateral relationship frozen since the early 1960s is now over.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro met Tuesday morning in New York City during the annual U.N. General Assembly, and the administration described the meeting as a fruitful one, though it released few substantive details about what was discussed.

The meeting — the second such face-to-face encounter since Mr. Obama announced last December that the U.S. would end its isolation of Cuba and the first since each country re-opened embassies in Havana and Washington, respectively — comes against the backdrop of deep, lingering issues dividing the two sides. Those issues include the administration’s continued objections to human rights violations and the jailing of political dissidents on the island.

The White House also has publicly vowed that the decades-old embargo on Cuba ultimately will be lifted, a move Mr. Castro said is vital to advancing the relationship. Mr. Obama repeated that assurance during a U.N. speech Monday — despite the deep opposition to lifting the embargo from lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill.

“For 50 years, the United States pursued a Cuba policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people. We changed that. We continue to have differences with the Cuban government. We will continue to stand up for human rights,” Mr. Obama said. “But we address these issues through diplomatic relations and increased commerce and people-to-people ties. As these contacts yield progress, I’m confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore.”

Asked about the president’s promise, Cory Fritz, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, said GOP leaders in the House disagree with the president’s assertion. He pointed to a statement from Mr. Boehner making clear Congress won’t act on the embargo anytime soon.

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“As I’ve said before, relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until Cubans enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner,” the speaker said in July.

But analysts say there are issues beyond the embargo, mainly the fact that the rhetoric of the 84-year-old Mr. Castro, younger brother of longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, doesn’t seem to be that of a man willing to redefine the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

In his own speech at the U.N. on Monday, Mr. Castro criticized the U.S. for “illegally” occupying Cuban territory at Guantanamo Bay. He also said the U.S. should end its “century of colonial domination” of Puerto Rico and insisted that Cuba be reimbursed for economic losses sustained as a result of the embargo — something the administration has rejected.

“Now, a long and complex process begins toward the normalization of relations that will only be achieved … when our people are compensated for the human and economic damages they still endure,” the Cuban leader said.

Specialists say Mr. Castro’s words illustrate how difficult it will be to overcome the long, antagonistic history between the U.S. and Cuba.

“He didn’t move away from that Cold War rhetoric. He keeps on talking about the embargo … he keeps on talking about Guantanamo, talking about compensation for the embargo. It’s like he’s stuck in this Cold War mentality,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think [Mr. Obama’s] remarks were completely different. He focused on the benefits of normalization.”

The White House has acknowledged that many challenges remain, but only highlighted the positives Tuesday. In a brief readout of the meeting, the White House cast the Obama-Castro sit-down as another step on the road to fully normalized relations.

“The president welcomed the progress made in establishing diplomatic relations, and underscored that continued reforms in Cuba would increase the impact of U.S. regulatory changes,” the administration said. “The president also highlighted steps the United States intends to take to improve ties between the American and Cuban peoples, and reiterated our support for human rights in Cuba.”

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