Biden Reserved on Future Of Cuba-U.S. Relations

April 3, 2009

Later this month at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, President Oscar Arias will have his first chance to meet U.S. President Barack Obama. While the economy will likely dominate the discussion, one country that will not be at the summit, Cuba, will likely still be on the mind of the attendees.

Last month, Arias reversed 48 years of foreign policy and announced that he would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, following an announcement by El Salvador President-elect Mauricio Funes that he would do the same. The moves left the United States as the only country in the hemisphere without formal relations with Cuba, a subject that came up at Monday’s meeting of Central American leaders with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in San José.

On Monday, Biden stopped short of condoning an end to the U.S.’s 47-year-old trade embargo on the island nation, but told reporters the United States would enter “a period of transition” in its relations with Cuba.

“Over in the next decade and sooner there is likely to be – and needs to be – changes in the relationship between Cuba and the United States,” Biden said. “President Obama and I campaigned on a platform that said we are willing to reach out,” he continued, “and I think you will see us reach out.”

But the vice president said Cuba first needed to make a “firm commitment” toward democracy and human rights before the United States would end the trade embargo.

Momentum, however, appeared to be growing for a change in U.S. policy. The Washington Post reported Monday that Obama is expected to further loosen travel restrictions for all U.S. citizens to Cuba prior to the Summit of the Americas. And on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators proposed legislation to lift the travel ban and loosen trade restrictions.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, also on Monday called for the OAS to re-admit Cuba, which had been banned 47 years ago, the news service Bloomberg reported.

While ending the embargo is a contentious issue in halls the U.S. Capitol, the re-establishing of relations has failed to raise rancor in Costa Rica in the weeks since Arias’ announcement. Some in the Legislative Assembly expressed reservations, and Cuban dissidents in Havana accused Arias of “betraying” his principles, but some Cubans in Costa Rica met the news with pragmatic optimism.

Dr. Santiago Enriquez Romero left Cuba 10 years ago and now works at the Hospital La Católica in Guadalupe, in northeast San José. While he said that diplomatic relations between Costa Rica and Cuba would not have “any specific benefits,” Romero expressed hope that relations would improve between expat Cubans living in Costa Rica and those still on the island as a result.

“To go to Cuba, we have to ask for a visa,” he said. “Perhaps this will facilitate better communication.”

Communication between Costa Rica and Cuba has been problematic for the countries’ leaders in recent years. In 2006, after Arias compared former Cuban President Fidel Castro to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Cuban Foreign Ministry called the Costa Rican president’s comments “disrespectful and lacking a minimum of ethics,” and called Arias “a servile parrot of Yankee imperialism,” a “vulgar mercenary,” an “egomaniac,” and “a vain, mediocre person sick with prominence” (TT, Jan. 5, 2007).

Last month, however, the Cuban press gave little coverage to the news of relations with Costa Rica, instead focusing on the announcement of President-elect Funes in El Salvador.

According to Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former Arias administration vice president and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., Cuba’s subdued reaction to Arias’ announcement was “very telling.”

“It suggests that there is some resentment lingering,” Casas-Zamora said. “It will take some time to build a relationship.”

Casas-Zamora said Arias had been entertaining the idea of re-establish relations with Cuba for “quite some time,” but was likely pressured to make the final call after Funes did.

Patrick Fitzgerald

 

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