GUY W. FARMER: Obama makes overtures to improve U.S.-Cuba relations |

GUY W. FARMER: Obama makes overtures to improve U.S.-Cuba relations

Guy W. Farmer
For the Nevada Appeal

W hat changes, if any, will President Obama and his administration make in our policy toward the Castro brothers’ Cuba? And will the new administration finally drop the economic blockade we have maintained against Cuba for the past 47 years?

As a longtime Cuba watcher, I’ve been seeking answers to those questions so I contacted friends at the Miami Herald, the U.S. newspaper that offers the most accurate and comprehensive coverage of Cuba and Latin America. They provided me with extensive background information on the current situation in Cuba and likely policy changes under President Obama.

According to Miami Herald staff writer Liza Gross, “Obama plans to score a few ‘easy wins’ on Cuba” by easing monetary limits on remittances that Cuban-Americans send to relatives on the island, and by allowing them unlimited Cuba visits. Gross predicted that Obama will go beyond his campaign promises by relaxing some travel restrictions – thereby encouraging cultural and artistic exchanges – and by changing the rules to promote agricultural trade between the U.S. and Cuba. But, she added, Obama probably won’t lift the trade embargo for the time being.

My guess is that the embargo will remain in place until the Castro brothers, 82-year-old Fidel and 78-year-old Raul, depart the political scene. In one of his few public statements since he allegedly transferred power to Raul a year ago, “retired” dictator Fidel Castro last month praised President Obama for his “noble intentions,” but said the new president must answer many questions about U.S.-Latin America relations and free market capitalism.

Nevertheless, Obama has a clear advantage over his predecessor, George W. Bush, because of his high popularity ratings in Latin America and around the world. “Obama has already scored his first major victory against anti-American demagogues worldwide,” wrote respected Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer. “He has put them on the defensive by the sheer power of his popularity in their own countries. … In many countries, Obama has a more positive image than the local head of state.

“That has put many anti-American leaders – Venezuela’s narcissistic-Leninist President Hugo Chavez among them – in the awkward position of having to tone down their daily tirade of epithets against the U.S. or risk being out of touch with their own people.”

Oppenheimer cited a recent poll of more than 17,000 people in 17 countries showing that “67 percent expressed optimism that Obama’s presidency will lead to better relations with the rest of the world.”

That’s why Chavez and the Castro brothers are re-thinking their approach toward the U.S., especially after Obama warned the world’s autocrats in his inaugural address that “your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

Miami Cubans, most of whom voted against Obama, have dominated U.S.-Cuba policy for far too long. Our new president could break their stranglehold on Cuba policy by easing restrictions on travel, trade and financial transactions, and by shutting down Miami-based Radio and TV Marti, which cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars per year and have a miniscule audience in Cuba.

In a speech at Miami last May, candidate Obama said he would maintain the trade embargo because it provides us with leverage to force Cuba “to take significant steps toward democracy,” like releasing political prisoners and holding real elections. Until that happens, President Obama should hold the line on further concessions to Cuba’s repressive Marxist leaders.

– Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, lived and worked in Latin America for more than 20 years during his U.S. Foreign Service career.